Thursday, June 28, 2012

Phở me completely

I'm Vietnamese so I get asked about phở a lot. And no, my family does NOT own a phở restaurant or a nail salon. Mostly, people ask me where can they get the best phở in town. Unfortunately, I am a pescatarian so I don't always know where to get the best meaty phở.  When I crave phở, I typically go home to my mother's or my grandma's for some amazing homemade phở. You know, the kind made with lots of love.

But here is a handy guide to phở based on interviews with my family, friends and personal experience.

What the phở is phở?

I hope you already know the answer to this and if you don't, I might have to slap you upside the head. Phở is a noodle soup made with a specific type of flat rice noodle, meat, a clear beefy broth and some garnishes. Phở is typically served with beef (phở bò) which may be served cooked or raw and then cooked in the hot broth but can also be served with chicken (phở gà) and in chicken stock. 

Phở originated from Hanoi or North Vietnam in the early 20th century incorporating both French and Vietnamese tastes so it's an original fusion food. There are ton of Phở Bắc restaurants all over which translates to "Northern Phở."

What the phở? There are regional variations?

Phở originated in the north and so northern phở is regarded to be a bit purer and simple. If you go to Phở Bắc or a restaurant specializing in northern-style phở, you'll notice some common characteristics:
  • The broth tends to be pretty clear with a crisp beef and onion taste
  • It will be garnished with some cilantro and green onion and you'll be provided lime, chilies and some greens like Thai basil but generally not a ton of other stuff and no bean sprouts
  •  The two options for beef tend to be raw or cooked but will be thin slices of beef
Regional differences have blended a bit over time, cooks may be from southern Vietnam and diners have influenced tastes so northern phở may not be as purely northern anymore. But northern Vietnamese diners tend not to season their phở with sauces so hot sauce and hoisin sauce is out for true phở-philes.

Phở wasn't introduced or popularized in the south until the country was split and many northerners moved south. Vietnam is a long, skinny country and the climate and people are incredibly diverse.
Food in the hot, tropical south tends to be on the sweeter side and is more densely spiced. Saigon-style phở tends to have:
  • Sweeter, cloudier broth. Southerners add more spices like Saigon cinnamon, a smokier onion flavor from charred onions, star anise, coriander seed and more.
  • More varied cuts of beef. Southerners tend to have options for tripe, tendon and sometimes even meatballs.
  • More garnish! Southerners will sprinkle more stuff on top of the phở and will serve more topping options on the side, including bean sprouts.
Southerners are the folks who add sriracha sauce, dip the meatballs in hoisin and load up on greens to pile in their phở like a salad swimming on top of a noodle soup. Since the climate is exceedingly hot and humid in Saigon, it's refreshing to have a bit of crisp, cold bean sprouts, basil and cilantro on top of a hot mouthful of soup.

Phở nam or phở Saigon. It might look the same but it tastes different!

My family is actually from the north, but moved to the south during that 1954 exodus so my family sometimes reveals its food allegiance in interesting ways. My grandmother tends to cook a much more pure phở bắc while my parents more often heavily spice up their phở in the style of phở Saigon. My mom refuses to admit this and points out that she has to spice up her broth because we're vegetarians and therefore are missing out on the richness of a beef stock but I think her palate has gone a bit southern.

How do I eat phở?

Very carefully so you don't splash broth all over yourself? Eat it the way you want to and with whichever garnishes sound good to you. You'll at least want to squeeze some lime over it which really brings out the broth's flavors. Try to use chopsticks and those big spoons if you can rather than using a fork please.

Where can I get the best phở?

At my family's. But if you can't come over to visit my parents, the best phở is apparently at this place in Hanoi.

Most people seemed to refer to it as Phở Bat Dan. Phở places typically are referred to by their street name or address, hence Phở 99, Phở 50 or Phở Pasteur.
The phở in Vietnam is cheap! When this photo was taken, 21,000 Vietnamese dong equaled one USD. But Phở should be inexpensive anywhere you go and if you're paying more than $5-6 for it, you're paying too much. In California, a bowl should only set you back $2-4.

You can add an egg for 5000 dong.
This place is also where Anthony Bourdain has eaten phở. All you hear inside this little hole-in-the-wall are the sounds of slurping of noodles and broth and clunking of chopsticks against bowls.

Nick slurping his phở.
The guy hacking up bits of beef for your soup.
 If the amount of scooters out front or the silent diners are any indication, it's the best phở in Vietnam. Here is Nick in front of the sea of scooters.

In general, my opinion is that the best Vietnamese food can be found in the US; I can personally attest that the food in the OC on Bolsa or in San Jose is tastier than the food in Vietnam and less likely to give you food poisoning. Following the Vietnam war, most of the best chefs fled to the US and took their recipes with them. I'm sure the Vietnamese food in Houston is magical as well although I haven't eaten it.

In Seattle, apparently Phở Bắc is the best northern-style phở around. It's that brightly colored, triangular restaurant in the Little Saigon neighborhood of the ID that looks like an obnoxious boat.

My uncle says that the best southern-style phở might be Phở Cyclo. He swears by the one in Sodo across from Starbucks headquarters but I think that's just because that's the one he frequents for lunch.

BONUS: A lot of my pals are eating gluten free diets and guess what? Phở is gluten free! So enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this! I love pho but never took the time to learn about the history of it! Hmmm....guess what I'm craving now! - Cam.