Some of the Tastiest Quesabirria-Inspired Tacos Can Be Found at This Oakland Pho Shop

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Three Vietnamese tacos in a cardboard sleeve.
Pho Vy's bo kho tacos come with raw jalapeño and pickled daikon on the side. (Pho Vy)

We are living in the golden age of quesabirria. It’s been more than two years since the crispy, cheesy, red-tinged beef birria tacos first exploded onto the Bay Area food scene courtesy of a handful of OG taqueros in Richmond, Oakland and Antioch. Since then, the Tijuana-style tacos have spawned too many imitators to count, including a number of cross-cultural riffs—say, beef rendang quesabirria or “Mexipino” chicken adobo quesabirria

Perhaps the most delicious of these hybridized versions are the bo kho, or Vietnamese beef stew, tacos that East Oakland’s Pho Vy has been selling for the past few months—the blessed union of that basic quesabirria formula (tender stewed meat + crispy tortillas + melted cheese) with a family recipe passed down through four generations.   

Since it opened in 2016, Pho Vy has garnered a reputation for serving what might be the richest and most delicious bowl of pho in the East Bay. But Tuan Nguyen, who runs the business with his wife Trang Truong, says the restaurant’s real signature dish is its bo kho—a recipe that was passed down to Nguyen by his mother and his maternal grandfather. It’s a lighter, brothier version of the stew than the dark gravy base you’ll find at a lot of other Vietnamese restaurants; the recipe is specific to his family’s hometown of My Tho, in southern Vietnam, Nguyen says.

 

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Like so many other small, family-run restaurants, the pandemic has been tough on Pho Vy, which shut down entirely for several months until finally reopening in July with a skeleton crew—family members only—for takeout and, eventually, limited-capacity outdoor dining. As Nguyen explains it, the shift to takeout was especially tough for a pho restaurant: “Pho in general is something you have to eat on the spot to experience it the way it’s meant to be eaten,” he says, noting how the texture, temperature, and flavor all have to be just so. “It never tastes right when you take it to go.”

Nguyen’s tacos started as a kind of Hail Mary born out of the challenges of the pandemic. An Oakland native, Nguyen grew up eating tacos and always had a deep love for Latino foods. He’d always toyed with the idea of creating some kind of hybrid Vietnamese-Mexican dish—to, as he puts it, “mix different kinds of culinary fields into one type.” With the restaurant struggling just to keep its head above water, Nguyen decided to give it a shot. Traditionally, he says, you’d eat the restaurant’s tender, slow-cooked bo kho over rice noodles or with a French baguette. But Nguyen had been watching the burgeoning quesabirria trend, and he thought his stew would make a great base for that style of taco. 

Closeup of a Vietnamese taco, with stewed beef and pickled carrot and daikon.
A close-up view of the bo kho taco. (Luke Tsai)

The process isn’t very different from what you’d see at a birria shop, though the flavors are distinctly Vietnamese: To make his bo kho, Nguyen simmers brisket for four or five hours until it reaches maximal tenderness, then shreds the meat. He scoops out some of the rendered fat that collects at the top of the pot and uses it as a dip for the corn tortillas, which get crisped up on the griddle. He melts some Colby Jack on top of the stew to add a little bit of chile heat. And then, in addition to the standard taco toppings of cilantro and onion, Nguyen also tops his bo kho tacos with Thai basil and slices of raw jalapeño, like you’d get with a bowl of pho, and sweet carrot and daikon pickles like the kind served on banh mi.

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Taken all together, it makes for an absurdly delicious bite: crispy, soupy, meaty, and a little bit sweet. For taco eaters who like to dip their quesabirria, Pho Vy will serve a little cup of the concentrated bo kho broth on the side by request, though Nguyen says it isn’t really necessary: The tacos are juicy enough as it is.

For now, the tacos are an off-menu item, sold at $12.95 for a plate of three—roughly in line with the going rate for quesabirria. Nguyen says he hasn’t yet listed them on the menu officially, as “Vietnamese quesabirria” or some such, because he didn’t want to “overstep Latino restaurants.” But so far, he says, everyone seems to love the tacos—including a number of Mexican-American customers. On a good day, Pho Vy now sometimes sells 200 or 300 tacos. It’s a boost in business that, ultimately, may have helped save the restaurant.

“It made a big difference,” Nguyen says.

Pho Vy is currently open for takeout and outdoor seating at 401 International Blvd. in Oakland, from 10 a.m.–8 p.m. every day except Thursdays. For now, the bo kho tacos aren’t listed on the menu, but they’re always available.