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:
(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:
It was between a panda, a rat and a wizard, and I felt the panda was the safest choice:
Leah and Erin concurred:
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.