My First Pho

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Leah, who designed my website, couldn’t believe it when I told her, back when I met her, that I’d never had pho (pronounced: F-uh). “Oh my God,” she said. “When it’s cold, I totally have to take you out for pho.”

News flash: it’s cold. And Leah, ever the persistent pho-pusher, reminded me over e-mail not long ago about my pho promise. “The time has come for pho,” she wrote (or didn’t really write, but I like the way it sounds) and the pho gods smiled upon me as I wrote her back: “Yes. Yes it is.”

The place Leah suggested is a place I’ve already visited: Pho Grand in Chinatown where I, rather shockingly, didn’t have the pho. I had a sesame beef dish that was awesome and then, would you believe it, I went back and STILL didn’t have the pho. I had a caramel fish dish that sounds nasty (caramel fish?) but was really wonderful: I wrote about that here. Still, no pho. I was in the land of pho but left pho-less. My time for pho was finally here.

Before I put my pho in my mouth, let me tell you what pho is: it’s a rich, decadent broth enriched with meat and flavored with spices. That was my own definition. Let me offer a more authoritative version from the irrefutable authority, Wikipedia: “Pho is served as a bowl of white rice noodles in clear beef broth, with thin cuts of beef (steak, fatty flank, lean flank, brisket).”

Hey, I came pretty close. The entry goes further: “The broth is generally made by simmering beef (and sometimes chicken) bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, and spices, taking several hours to prepare. Seasonings include Saigon cinnamon, star anise, charred ginger, cloves, and sometimes black cardamom pods which are sewn up in a disposable pouch and dipped into the broth.”

Those spices are what make pho unique. When I finally sat down with Leah and Erin (my illustrator, who I finally got to meet) Leah pointed us all in the right direction:

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(That’s Leah on the right, Erin on the left.)

Actually, she only pointed me in the right direction: Erin, who’d already had pho in her life, was so inspired by my description of the sesame beef I’d had the last time I was there she went for that instead.

Leah chose I think the #7 (hey Leah, tell the readers in the comments what we had!) and that, she said, was the most traditional pho. Where did Leah learn so much about pho? Was it in Vietnam, researching the role of Kim for her dream part in “Miss Saigon”? Not quite. It was in Richmond, Virginia where she’s from.

“They had pho in Richmond?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” she responded and so did Erin. Richmond is where they both fell for pho.

After much chit-chatting, our pho finally arrived and Leah was disappointed that the meat was already cooked in the broth. “Usually they give you the meat raw,” she explained, “and you cook it in the broth yourself.”

But this didn’t bother me so much. It was snowing hard outside and somehow the smell of that pho was magical: like the most comforting bowl of soup in the world took a journey through a drawer of exotic spices and came out the other end with slivers of beef inside. The first slurp was enchanting, the second slurp was seductive, and the third slurp sealed the deal. I was hooked: I loved pho.

“This is really good,” I said as I slurped.

“Isn’t it?” asked Leah.

But would it fill me up? At first I wasn’t sure. “Should I order a large?”

“There’s no way you can finish a large,” said Leah. “I usually get a regular and that’s plenty of food.”

As I picked out the slivers of beef and ate them, I thought to myself “hogwash.” I could eat five bowls of this and still be hungry. But then came the noodles. There were many, many noodles in that bowl. And with the noodles, the beef and the broth, suddenly I got very, very full.

“Wow, I can’t believe how filling that was and how cheap it was.” How cheap? $6, I believe.

Still, like any good food addict, I couldn’t ignore the fact that across the street there was a bakery.

“Wanna go grab dessert at the Chinese bakery?”

It was there that I ate my first panda:

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It was between a panda, a rat and a wizard, and I felt the panda was the safest choice:

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Leah and Erin concurred:

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And as we pulled that panda apart–it was basically a yellow cake with vanilla frosting–we were shocked to find that the panda’s brains were made of pure butter.

“Butter and sugar,” corrected Leah; but it was nasty. Don’t eat panda brains, if you can avoid it.

In conclusion, this was a wonderfully fun night and terrifically educational too. I finally got my first taste of pho and it was a pho that I shall all judge future phos by. Maybe I’ll even make pho myself some day. Thanks to Leah and Erin for being my pho guides. Perhaps one day I’ll get to Richmond and get to experience pho at its source: until then, I have Chinatown, and that’ll have to suffice.

52 comments

  1. In my part of Florida there are many Vietnameses restaurants, so I eat alot of Pho. Does Pho now deserve a spot on your list of favorite cold-weather foods? As for the Panda; it was certainly a better choice than a wizard or a rat.

  2. I am so glad that you got to experience the wonder that is Pho. My boyfriend and I became completely addicted to it when we were in Vietnam last year. I don’t know if wikipedia told you that it’s a breakfast food, though we always ate it for lunch. I’d be interested in trying to the kind with the raw beef served along side… didn’t come across that anywhere we were – sounds quite like japanese food.

    Just one question… your pronounciation guide: f-uh, does that mean in america its pronounced with a soft sound at the end. Just curious because I’ve only heard it pronounced with a harder ‘oh’ sound.

  3. Glad that you finally got to try pho, making it would be full days work because the broth requires hours of simmering. Did you get a chance to try the fried egg rolls? They are usually served along with lettuce, pickled carrots and daikon, basil, and mint. You wrap it up and dip it into garlicky fish sauce, da bomb!!

  4. I live in Richmond, VA and we do have wonderful pho. But no pandas with brains made out of butter. Sad. Love the blog.

  5. That was fun!! and the buttercream Panda was truly the “icing on the cake”. It’s ChinaTown for me this weekend, must have Pho too.

  6. Those critters on the left side of the case look like Pokemon to me.

    And mmmm…Pho! We even have Pho in Baltimore, believe it or not.

  7. Pho is the best remedy for a hangover! My friends and I indulged it in college after a crazy night of drinking.

  8. If ever in LA and searching for Pho you must try

    Pho 87 – 1019 N Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90012

    Best Pho I have ever had.

  9. Oh, geez, pho! In my D.C. days, there was a time, particularly once the cold weather arrived, when it was a weekly ritual, at least, particularly if you felt a cold coming on.

    However, you skipped — and this is something you will come to appreciate as you eat it more — the toppings: the basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, hot sauce, plum sauce, lime wedges. This is truly the art and genius of pho, because two people can order the exact same bowl but end up with two very different tasting soups to devour. As you go back again and again, you can refine your pho experience – a little more basil, a little less sriracha, more bean sprouts for crunch.

    Alas, in Pittsburgh, there are few Vietnamese options, and in the two years we’ve been back here, have yet to try it. Still have our pho bowls and spoons that we would use for takeout pho.

    Welcome to the world of pho. You will never go back.

  10. Did you get your pho with all the gooey tendons and crunchy tripe and such? Your picture is making me hungry regardless. Mo’ pho, mo’ pho!

  11. Oh for the love of pho! Growing up in the Bay Area we had lots and lots of pockets of Vietnamese. In turn, there were lots of yummy sandwiches and tons of pho to be had. Man I love the stuff. So warm, so savory and sweet, so perfectly light. Mmmmm. Damn now I have to go out and get some for lunch. Guess the leftovers I brought will have to rot in the fridge. Damn.

  12. Pho is the best thing that has happened to suburban(and urban) fast food since…..probably ever. As simple as it is, not all Pho restaurants are created equal. Try lots of them. The key is fresh ingredients. Yeah I know, same as every other kind of food, but en more so in this case. Find out where a decent size Viet population is and look there. Better/busier pho places will offer the thin sliced eye of round either raw or bloody rare. This is a good thing as you can cook them yourself in your bowl. With the beef brisket, and flank steak you generally get those well done. Asians prise the fattier cuts of these. Try them out if you don’t mind a bit of visible fat. They will also be the hardest bits to chew. Finally the tendons and tripe. They my favorite part. The tendons look like what they are and have the texture of a warm beef gummi worm. If you can enjoy the texture, you will be hooked. Trust me. The tripe will come sliced super thin and does have the slightly crunchy/squeaky texture to the tooth, that someone mentioned above. It also has great beef flavor.

    Considering it costs about the same as a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal, and takes about as long to get to your table it qualifies as fast food to me. It may not be drive through to eat in the car, but it does carry out well. Like i said, the best thing that has happened to fast food.

  13. I think we had the number 6 or 7…can’t remember. The one without intestines!

    Usually when I got pho in Richmond it was served with the beef raw in the broth, where the beef cooked the first 3 minutes (usually spent pouring Sirachi sauce on top and covering it with basil, sprouts and lime juice…yuuum). Otherwise, this pho stacked up with my hometown soup. 4 stars.

  14. Pho is great, I like mine with cooked beef brisket. Now I’m craving for pho but I work in mid-town…

    Next time try Nha Trang on Centre street, their crispy squid is delicious too!

  15. Pho is great, I like mine with cooked beef brisket. Now I have a craving for pho but I work in mid-town..boo..

    Next time try Nha Trang on Centre street, their crispy squid is delicious too! It’s across the street from the Centre street exit of the Canal street station on the N/Q train.

  16. Pho is so great. My first bowl was eaten at a little joint in, of all places, Waco, TX, but it was tasty indeed.

    If you ever make it yourself, you will earn bonus cool points from me. (When you get 500, you can trade them in for a cookie.)

  17. at one of my (trillion) local pho places, bistro b in richardson texas, they wear shirts that say “i dont give a pho” and it’s pretty hilar.

  18. Did you try it with the Hoisen sauce and the Rooster sauce??? Next time, you have to put both of those sauces along with the bean sprouts and green pepper and lime!!!

    I also like to dip my beef in both sauces. Spicy and sweet. LOVE IT!

  19. I agree with an earlier poster that another great element of Vietnamese pho is the fresh herbs and bean sprouts and lime that come with it. Toss a bunch into your pho and you’ll really think of spring in a cold winter. :)

    I also think another amazing thing about the broth, which is really the star, is that it’s slow-cooked, sometimes for 24 hours, to get all the marrow goodness from the beef bones thrown in.

    BTW, I always get the large. ;-)

  20. (It’s “pho king” good). Wah wah.

    oh leah hahahaha.

    I live in orange county california. there’s pho EVERYWHERE. and it IS a good cure for a hangover and very soothing for a cold. I would love any kind of asian noodle-broth combo though, pretty much.

  21. Nothing beats sitting on a small plastic stool slurping up a steaming hot bowl of pho at 5:00 am on a Hanoi street corner and paying less than 25 cents for it. I saw God.

  22. I became interested in trying pho after it was mentioned on an episode of Top Chef and since then I have been a regular at my local Vietnamese restaurant.

    Deeeeelicious.

  23. Pho has cured me after countlesss a suffocating Chinatown bus ride; getting off in South Station in Boston, I head straight for Pho Hoa. After a big bowl of pho, I feel like a human being again. Also, if you’re feeling sick and you have it, you start feeling better. Swear to God.

  24. Pho has cured me after countlesss a suffocating Chinatown bus ride; getting off in South Station in Boston, I head straight for Pho Hoa. After a big bowl of pho, I feel like a human being again. Also, if you’re feeling sick and you have it, you start feeling better. Swear to God.

  25. Sounds delicious but unless I make it myself I won’t be trying it for a while–not many Vietnamese places in southern Italy :(

    Anyway, I can’t get the phrase “butter for brains” out of my head now…..

  26. Dudeeee!!!! I miss Pho, I’m going to get some RIGHT NOW. There’s no Pho place in Upper West Side so I’ve been on a serious Pho-deprived case.

    I agree with all the comments about the fresh herbs and other ingredients that make up this already wonderful delicious dish to even a HIGHER level.

    My bowl of Pho always have at least 2 wedges of lime, shirachi hot sauce to add a kick at the end, a little fish sauce (TRUST ME – it makes the Pho so much more flavorful, even though you might think it is not possible, but IT IS. You won’t smell any fish sauce I promise :P)basil, been sprout for textures.

    AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST…..*drum rolls* “NUOC BEO” (Nukee Beow – *Beow* like the cat says *Meow meow*) It’s the FAT (that’s right, FAT) that comes out from the meat and bones in the broth. This is Fat is being scouped out of the broth before they serve you the bowl of Pho (you know like you scoupe out the Fat when you braised your Short Ribs)

    Let me declare a truth about this. Back in Vietnam, us Vietnamese folks don’t scoupe them out, we just DON’T this is part of the dish and an important part that makes this dish so wonderfully awesome. We notice they only do this in the State so what do we do??? AH HAH we order them on the side and EVERY SINGLE Pho restaurant knows this. It’s a normal thing for a Vietnamese folk to be in there and say “Can I have a bowl of NUOC BEO (fat) on the side please” Your waiter will understandbly smile and bring out a bowl of silky oily bowl with a few of scallions in it (the bowl looks like melted butter so don’t be afraid) Just scoop in 1 huge spoon of it into your bowl of Pho and I promise it WILL change your life FOREVER!!!

    All of my non-Vietnamese friends while they cannot understand a single word of Vietnamese can pronounce loud and clear PHO and NUOC BEOto order everytime they’re in a Pho restauarnt…Hah :P

    Oh about the raw beef most restaurant don’t leave it on the side for you. I do really love my meat raw and to cook it by myself too, so what you do is you ask them to leave the meat on the side. This is very common in Pho restaurant so next time don’t hesitate to tell them to leave the beef on the side (with a bowl of Nuoc Beo – I’m telling ya). It’ll come out on a dish, you can dip it in the broth and ..Let’s the fun begins…:P

    BTW – Here’s the a fun clip about how to make Pho and yes also the correct way to pronounce it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9-ah-j05M4

  27. There are tons of good pho places in Seattle, but the best is actually a small chain. (It’s family owned, every so often, another family member goes off and opens another one, so they’re everywhere.) And that’s the Pho Thanh, which has a lot of different kinds, (my favorite is flank and beef brisket,) and these wonderful tiny cream puffs for afters. The hot cane tea is lovely, too, I think it’s just infused sugar cane.

  28. Pho is the best. It’s a toss up between pho and wonton soup when I’m feeling under the weather. If I get out of the house I head for a bowl of pho, if I’m really miserable at home, then it’s wonton soup at home.

    I love my pho with two limes, lots of jalepeno slices, cilantro and basil. I can’t stand bean sprouts. One of these days, I’m going to make my own pho broth and freeze quarts of it. 6-8 hours is a good day of smelling lovely beef broth.

  29. That was great! At first I thought you’d MADE pho and was going to be all way even more impressed with you. Not that reading about your first ever experience eating pho was in any way disappointing! Pho is such spiritual and humble food. You’ll go back again and again and every bowl will be different. I trust you’ll try it in your own kitchen soon enough…:) Those sweets look amazing.

  30. Pho is the greatest thing to happen to the winter cold. There should be a Pho place on every corner of every cold-weather city … right next to the Starbucks. Mmmm…. pho.

  31. I had always fealt there was a gap in my foodiness because I had never tried pho. This summer I was couchsurfing (props to couchsurfing.com) in Zurich. It was cold and nasty, and my host invited me over to her friend’s place for dinner. He was cooking pho. He cooked some meat in the water with spices to make the broth, so there was both pre cooked meat, as well as raw meat which cooked in our individual bowls. It was a great time, delicious food and a interesting conversation about the role of media in world affairs.

    Shout out to Anna in Zurich.

  32. “Your post inspired me to go out for Pho this past weekend! Thanks. Unfortunately, it was Just ok.”

    Sounds like you went to a bad place. You definitely ordered the wrong stuff. It’s about the beef broth. You did the same as order the fried chicken and shrimp in a steakhouse. Not the specialty, so to speak. I don’t mean to knock your tastes, but(I read your blog)try to be more adventurous. Give pho another chance. Just get the beef next time.

  33. Pho Than in Seattle IS a great place for Pho — they have amazing vegetarian pho too, with little button mushrooms and fried tofu. *slurp*

  34. Rich – I kind of anticipated that the Pho place I went to wouldn’t be great…I wanted to support a new local restaurant. But it is removed from the “Pho area of town”…so, my expectations weren’t very high. I’ve had beef Pho at a good restaurant before and have enjoyed it. I was trying to think outside of the Pho-box by getting chicken and shrimp.

  35. I am all about thinking outside the box, and supporting a local place is to be commended. I have so many pho places within a 5 mile radius of my home, I do my share of experimenting as well. However your blog post made it sound like you were poo pooing the dish because they made you a bad chicken/shrimp caesar salad. Sorry for the assumption. I still stand by my point. Pho is about simplicity. In such cases it is always best to stick to the things the house does best, not the stuff they have to include for non-red meat eaters. I think you proved my point.

  36. Whoa! I totally went to Pho Grand and had the caramel fish. It was DIVINE. It was the first thing that jumped out at me when perusing the menu. Since I’ve never seen that combo before, I absolutely had to order it.

    Congrats on having your first pho. It truly is a cold weather comfort food. My boyfriend and I actually had some good pho this weekend. I was afraid that our move from NYC to Austin would leave us pho-less, but I was seriously wrong. It was great! I would suggest using tons of Thai basil, hoisin sauce, cilantro, etc. next time. Yum!

  37. Ahhh….pho. And Pho 79. How bad is it that I’m more excited that my MiL is now living basically right down the street from Pho 79 than the fact that she’s got a nice new place that we don’t have to worry about her trying to keep up with? That and the fact that when we went on vacation to Va Beach, we couldn’t wait to find their sister location and eat there too.

    I actually ask for extra tripe when I get mine (#16). And one of these days hubby and I keep saying we’re going to try something else, but we never do.

  38. Pho is the best….especially steaming hot from my mom’s kitchen! I have it on all of you because my mom is Vietnamese and I can have pho whenever I want!!! :) The Vietnamese eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they load it up. You have to throw everything in it that they bring you with the broth…you’ll eventually find what ingredients make the perfect soup for you! Mine has to include basil, lime and lots of hoisin and hot sauce! Congratulations on your first pho experience!

  39. Ok, so you tried it, I’m really happy you’re into Pho now, it’s one of my top 5 ultimate comfort foods. Next time, go crazy and get yourself some intestines, and tendon. Use lots of toppings for heat, sweet, tart and crunch.

    Also, make your own.

    I make a really great gringo version with storebought (quality is key, here) or homemade beef broth simmered for a half hour with anise, cardamom, charred onions, ginger, pepper, cilantro, and other stuff, strained and poured right over cooked brown rice noodles. The kind I get only require a fast soaking in hot water. Top it with paper thin slices of raw flank, or if you’re really cheating tear up some slices of deli roast beef (less than you’d think, maybe 2 oz per person). The fun part is the toppings. In our house, we favor chopped Italian parsley, mint, and cilantro, along with paper thin slices of raw onion, and lots of sprouts. Or, for real comfort food quality, throw a poached egg on top, tradition be-damned. It’s perfect sick food. Nourishing, fast, and slurpy.

    I’m looking forward to when (not if) you decide to tackle making it at home, even the bootleg American version.

  40. I have never heard of Pho before I saw this blog. It certainly does look like something I would have to try being that I am a food aficionado.

  41. I have never heard of pho before coming on to this site. Nonetheless, it looks interesting and I think I would be willing to give it a try.

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