It would be easy to write off a gargantuan bowl of lobster-topped pho that can easily serve two to three adults as a thirst trap: a gimmick to drive social media traffic and — hopefully — draw diners into a restaurant to enjoy more mundane menu options.
Gao Viet Kitchen chef and owner Viet Nguyen is willing to admit it’s probably not necessary to spend $79 on a bowl of pho on a regular basis. But if you want to, as Donna Meagle would say, treat yourself to an unapologetically decadent version of the dish, there may be no better place to do so than his San Mateo restaurant, where a show-stopping bowl of noodle soup on the menu comes loaded with a whole Maine lobster, beef rib, oxtail, filet mignon, brisket, and bone marrow.
Nguyen, who owns and cooks at the Peninsula restaurant alongside his sister Linh, says the dish is meant to be attention-grabbing but insists it’s not a stunt. Key ingredients include beef bone broth he simmers for anywhere from 24 to 36 hours that gets extra oomph thanks to the marrow he scrapes from the bone and adds back into the soup base. There’s enough beef in the bowl to satisfy a small army: a full beef rib, the bone rising proudly out of the broth; slices of brisket and filet mignon; and a whole oxtail swimming amid spring onions and a tangle of rice noodles. The crown jewel is the 1.5-pound whole Maine lobster, which Nguyen says the restaurant has delivered daily. It’s steamed and the meat is plucked out before being artfully rearranged on top.
He was inspired to create the dish after seeing the eye-popping, Instagrammable dishes that often land restaurants on television shows. “I watch a lot of Food Network so I get inspiration from people who do a $100 taco and a $100 banh mi and a $100 bowl of pho,” Nguyen says. “So I was thinking I wanted to do my own, but I just do not have the heart to charge people $100 so instead I just charge $79 — which nobody should be paying $79 for a bowl of pho but it actually costs me $50 [to make].”
Phozilla, as it’s listed on the menu, is intended to be playful. Nguyen calls it “a non-political bowl of pho,” since it proves “there’s no right or wrong way” to make the dish. It’s in line with the whole idea behind Gao Viet Kitchen, which is Viet and Linh’s family’s second restaurant. The first restaurant, Ben Tre, has two locations in South San Francisco and Millbrae, has been serving the same menu of Vietnamese classics like crispy banh xeo and brick red bowls of bun rieu for the last decade, Viet says. He wanted to open Gao so he’d have a place to be more creative in the kitchen. (Phozilla isn’t the only item on the menu that features a whole lobster swimming out of a bowl of soup.)
Phozilla-wanting parties be warned: This bowl of pho is intended to be shared — though the restaurant staff tells VIet at least one or two hungry customers have managed to conquer it solo. And since Phozilla is really Viet’s brainchild, he makes every bowl himself. “Only I make that bowl of pho, so when we get too busy, I cannot even make it anymore,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s a bowl of fun.”