The Pho Experience

I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a uniquely rare melting pot of people, culture, and cuisines. Living here affords the opportunity to experience some of the world’s best food, and meet some extremely interesting people. About 15 years ago, while working for a large high tech company here in the Silicon Valley, my friend Hai Nguyen suggested we go out for pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that’s a staple of these wonderful peoples’ diet. This was my first introduction to what has become virtually my favorite lunch food, and something that I have to have at least once a week, or I get very cranky.

Vietnamese 101:
Pho is pronounced “fuh.” If you order a bowl of “foe” they’ll know you don’t know what you’re talking about. Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese name. The simple pronunciation is “win.” Don’t mangle it. My friend Hai told me “just say win.”
This is the noodle house where I experienced my very first bowl of the wonderful Vietnamese street food, pho bo. It’s located in Sunnyvale, CA in a little strip mall at El Camino and Mary Avenue. If you’re in the area, try it. Very nice people, excellent soups and spring rolls.

Pho restaurants are everywhere in the south bay area (Silicon Valley, San Jose, lower Peninsula area). In some parts of San Jose, and in certain areas that have a high Vietnamese population, they’re literally on every corner and in every little strip mall. Some are better than others, with small subtleties in the way the broth is made, the spices are used, the garnishes are presented, and the quality of the meats used. But they’re actually very similar, and it’s tough to get a bad bowl of pho in the south bay.

There are several “universals” at pho restaurants. First, they’re always served in two sizes, regular and large. Pho is always served with a plate of garnishes; Fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeno peppers, and either a lemon or lime. The way you use these in your soup is up to you, but I was taught (by my Vietnamese friend) that you break off the leaves of the basil, add as many bean sprouts as you want, spice it up with jalapenos to your personal taste (I use ALL of them) squeeze the lime/lemon on top, and add a little Sriacha hot pepper sauce, which is always on the table at any Vietnamese restaurant.

Use chopsticks and the Chinese soup spoon with your pho. Don’t use a fork, it just ain’t cricket. And “slurping” your noodles is perfectly acceptable. Some people pick the noodles up onto the spoon, most Vietnamese simply pick up a bunch of noodles with the chopsticks, and chew off what they want. This is legal with this food.

When you’re finished and ready to pay your bill, don’t expect the server to bring you a check. Vietnamese restaurants almost always expect you to note your table number, and go up to the counter and tell them the number when it’s time to pay. It’s just the way it works.

Prices for a bowl of pho are generally in the five-to-seven dollar range, meaning for a maximum of seven bucks, you get a huge bowl of healthy low cal flavor, that will totally fill you up (and I’m a big guy). Add a Vietnamese iced coffee for a special treat. This is a remnant of the French Indochina era, and a good one. Occasionally I’ll add a spring roll, which they usually serve Thai style with peanut dipping sauce, but I have to be really hungry to do this. The soup’s usually plenty. Two bowls of soup, an order of spring rolls and two beverages will run you a whopping twenty bucks at the restaurant above. My recommendation for novices is to try the “pho tai,” which is beef noodle soup with rare thin slices of beef. It’s essentially the recipe that follows, below. Tai Chin is also good, with both thin slices of beef and thicker slices of brisket. I’d recommend you don’t get into the exotic tendon, tripe, etc., until you know you’re going to like it.

Loyal readers know that we used to live in Bend, OR and in fact still own a beautiful house up there. Among the things we totally missed from the Bay Area was the proximity of so many great Vietnamese restaurants, as well as many other ethnic foods that we took for granted.

Bend is a stunningly beautiful town in the middle of Oregon. The Sisters Mountains, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Jefferson, and Smith Rock are some of the most gorgeous sights in the state. The meandering Deschutes, which was literally across the street from our house, and the surrounding trees and terrain, provide some incredible sights, including great blue herons flying just above the water, osprey swooping down to pick up a snack for the youngins’ that are waiting in the big nest high up in an abandoned tree, salmon, steelhead, and several varieties of trout making their annual journey to and from the upper Cascade Lakes and the Columbia Gorge, and The occasional group of deer during early morning and twighlight hours, scouting for food.

There are some wonderful restaurants in Bend. The Jackalope Grill is world class. Baltazar’s Mexican Restaurant is one of the best anywhere. They specialize in regional seafood-oriented creations, and they’re absolutely excellent. The Blacksmith, Greg’s Grill, and my favorite, the Tumalo Feed Company, are all great steak houses. Tumalo’s awesome; great food and sides, and any place that serves martinis in a Mason Jar can’t miss in my humble opinion. Bronco Billy’s in nearby Sisters is always a fun spot, and one that we take all of our visiting friends to. Soba noodles are a good lunch indulgence, but nothing close to a good bowl of pho. Mirenda’s is always good, La Rosa’s is the best Mexican food, and Longboard Louie’s makes a phenomenal burrito.

But true, good ethnic foods are somewhere between rare and non-existant. Two very good Thai restaurants are the exception. The single Indian restaurant ranges from ok, to not. There’s absolutely zero good Chinese food. High style French food is impossible. Italian food of any kind is now gone completely, with the closing of Ernesto’s, which had been a Bend mainstay for decades. This means that you quite literally can’t go anywhere in town and get a decent plate of spaghetti and meatballs. We’re not talking upscale risotto with truffle sauce, or some exotic preparation with an expertly reduced demiglace, just basic pasta. Gone.

And you’ve undoubtedly gathered that you can’t get a bowl of pho in Bend. There’s one pho restaurant in Redmond, which is the county seat and about a 20 minute drive north …provided it’s not during the six months of snow and ice that makes you think twice about trekking anywhere on Highway 97.

Which brings me to the recipe below, which is essentially a combination of several authentic recipes I found over the years, lots of experimentation, and a major “corner-cutter” which is to use a much easier method of producing the beef broth than the traditional half-day boiling of 20 pounds of beef bones that usually goes into a traditional pho recipe. I’ve made this many times, it’s always good, it’s a major crowd-pleaser, and your guests who haven’t experienced pho will be instant converts to this wonderful Vietnamese soup. Plan the bulk of a day getting this together, even with the afore-mentioned broth shortcut.

A note on ingredients:
Some of these are hard to find, particularly if you live in a suburban or country area.
– Star anise in particular, presented quite a search. When I finally located some in the health foods area of a local Fred Meyer, I almost lost my breath when I saw that they were $35.00 a pound. But the half dozen that you’ll need will likely run you about thirty-five cents. Mine did.

– Learn to char the onions and ginger. Use a carving set fork and don’t be afraid to cook it right over an open flame burner. Be careful, but that’s how it’s done.

– Fish sauce is a Vietnamese staple and is readily available in most supermarkets’ Oriental foods section.

Find real Thai basil. The stuff you use in your pasta sauce is not the same beast. Thai basil is the only thing to use in Vietnamese cooking and as a garnish for your treasured bowl of pho.

Pho Bo (Vietnamese noodle soup)

For the broth:
32 oz. container of good quality (I used organic), low salt beef broth
Beef bouillon (jar of granules) or beef concentrate in a jar (better choice)
2 medium yellow onions
3-4 inch piece of fresh ginger
5 pieces of star anise (health food stores/Whole Foods/Wild Oats/Mollie Stone’s)
6 whole cloves
3 inch cinnamon stick
1 ½ tablespoons of salt
4 tablespoons of fish sauce (Oriental section of your grocery store)

For the bowls:
Package of banh pho noodles (rice sticks, pick the width you like, thinner is better)
½ lb of raw eye of round, sirloin, or London broil, sliced as thin as possible (partially freeze it, then cut it for best results)
1 medium yellow onion, sliced wafer thin, soaked in cold water 30 minutes before serving soup
3-4 scallions, green part only, cut into small rounds
½ a bunch of cilantro, chopped
Black pepper

Thin sliced jalapenos (leave the seeds in)
Bean sprouts
Lime wedges
Thai basil (remember, there’s no substitute)
Sriacha red pepper sauce

Prepare the broth:
Cut the ends off the 2 onions, char the onions and ginger over an open burner. I used a long carving fork, and rotated them around for about a minute each. Let these cool in a bowl.
In a stockpot, add the beef broth, 6 quarts of hot water, 6 tablespoons of beef bouillon granules, the cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves, salt, fish sauce.
Peel the onions and ginger, rough cut them into chunks, add them to the broth.
Bring the broth to a full boil over high heat, lower to a simmer. Simmer for 3 hours, uncovered, on low heat, stirring occasionally. This part can’t be rushed. Three hours is the magic number!
After 3 hours of simmering, pour the broth through a strainer or colander into another pot, discard the non-broth ingredients.
Return the broth to the stove, continue to simmer while you prepare the bowls.

Prepare the noodles:
Soak the noodles in warm water for 30 minutes
Bring a pot of water to a boil
Blanch the noodles for a couple minutes, drain

Broth should be at a rolling boil
Fill about 1/3 of the bowl with noodles
Arrange the beef, onions (that have been soaking), scallions, cilantro, and some black pepper
Ladle on enough broth to cover the other ingredients
Provide garnishes of Thai basil, sliced jalapenos, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and Sriacha (red pepper) sauce


8 comments so far

  1. Julie Jams on

    I love pho! Great insights.

  2. Timeless Goourmet on

    Oh my – I crave Pho all the time. I did a review of a Pho resstaurant in which I mentioned why I eat it in a restaurant – that broth can be a lot of work. LOVE your adaptation – this is a keeper and thank you for it!

  3. Vrinda on

    Nice post.My doctor’s name is Nguyen ,now i know how to pronounce …Never eaten Pho and new to me..

  4. curiousdomestic on

    I’ve never tried pho, but I’ve always been intrigued by it. Maybe I’ll give your recipe a try. Vietnamese food is still mysterious to me.

  5. Ruth on

    Always wanted to try it! No Vietnamese restaurants here and too scared to cook it myself in case it turns out so wrong it will put me off it lol

  6. Anonymous on

    love pho. I like to have hoisin mixed with sriracha in bowl on the side to dip meat into…yummm. I’ve never made it as I thought the broth was just too difficult to make. But I think I might have to try. Your post has me salivating!

  7. Lauren @ on

    My brother in law has to have Pho at least once a week too or he'd be reallly cranky. 🙂 Have you ever tried Chicken Pho? It is very light and tasty too.

  8. Anonymous on

    Quick update: That Pho restaurant from Redmond just opened up in Bend today, where Rico's Tacos used to be on 3rd =)

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