Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Pho Experience

This was originally released in 2009, and for some reason it's been the most popular blog post I've ever done.  I've made a few changes since then, both to the way I make the soup, as well as where I live.  We originally moved to Bend, Oregon in the middle of 2005, but ended up semi-moving back to the Bay Area from 2008-2010 for what seemed like a great job opportunity.  It wasn't, nor was its successor.  I'd rank them both at the absolute bottom of the list of jobs I've had in my high tech career.   

Living in the Bay Area has its perks, and the wide selection of top quality foods and restaurants to choose from is among the best things about living in or near San Francisco.  We had a rental house in Belmont, which is at the north end of the Peninsula, about twenty minutes below the City by the Bay.  But even with the vast array of foods to choose from, I'm always drawn to a good bowl of pho, and have been ever since I was "turned on" to it by my co-worker Hai Nguyen, in the early '90's.  It's inexpensive, filling, healthy, and the taste is out of this world.  I've been known to have pho several times a week for lunch, while working in the Silicon Valley. 

And so as much as we loved coming back to Bend fulltime, we would definitely miss the access to pho, which can be found every couple blocks on the S.F. Peninsula, as well as all over San Jose.  Amazingly, there was no pho in Bend at that time, meaning if I wanted to eat it, I'd have to make it for myself.  And even this has changed in the last year, with the opening of our first Vietnamese restaurant here in Bend, which is called Pho Viet Cafe.  Great stuff, I hope they outlast the economy, which is no easy task currently in Central Oregon. 

In addition to lots of experimenting to come up with the recipe below, I've also worked quite a bit on a much simpler Asian Noodle Soup, the recipe for which can be found HERE.  The ingredients are less exotic, and it's something you can make in an hour, which is my personal limit for weeknight dinner preparations.  Great soup, feel free to borrow the recipe experiment for yourself. 

So with a few modifications, once again here is The Pho Experience:

I was fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area for a good portion of my life; a uniquely rare melting pot of people, culture, and cuisines. Living there afforded me the opportunity to experience some of the world's best food, and meet some extremely interesting people. In the early 1990's while working for a large high tech company here in the Silicon Valley, my co-worker friend Hai Nguyen suggested that we go out for pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that's a staple of their diet. This was my first introduction to what has become virtually my favorite lunch food, and something that I had to have a couple times a week, or I'd 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 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 that are used, the way the garnishes are presented, and the quality of the meats that areused. 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 and add a few leaves of the basil, add a handful of bean sprouts, spice it up with jalapenos to your personal taste (I use ALL of them) squeeze the lime/lemon on top, and add a little Sriracha 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 perfectly 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 when dining with a friend I'll add an order of two spring rolls, which they'll 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 eye of round. 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.  I don't. 

We live in Bend; a beautiful and picturesque little 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 Deschutes River which flows south to north from the high Cascade Lakes to the Colubia Gorge, is literally across the street from our house.  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, and salmon, steelhead, and several varieties of trout making their annual journeys. 

There are some wonderful restaurants in Bend. I'd put Zydeco and Tart up against any of my favorite Bay Area restaurants.  Phenomenal food and beverages and world class service.  Baltazar's Mexican Restaurant great, specializing in regional seafood-oriented creations. 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. La Rosa's is the best Mexican food, and Longboard Louie's makes an amazing burrito. 

But true, good ethnic foods are somewhere between rare and non-existant here. Toomie's Thai restaurant is a notable exception. The single Indian restaurant ranges from ok, to not. There's absolutely zero good Chinese food. High style French food is impossible. Authentic Italian food is now gone completely, with the closing of Ernesto's, which had been a Bend mainstay for decades.

And until recently, you couldn't get a bowl of pho in Bend.  There was a half-way decent Vietnamese restaurant in Redmond up until a couple years ago, but like so many local businesses and restaurants, they were forced to close their doors.  
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 as have several of my friends.  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 couple notes on the 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 section of a local market, 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.
- My go-to store in Bend for most of the above is Newport Market, but most or all are also usually available at Whole Foods. 

Pho Bo (Vietnamese noodle soup

For the broth:

1 large can of Swanson's low fat and salt beef broth

6 cans of hot water
Beef broth concentrate (Better Than Bouillon or the brand Costco sells are both great products)
2 medium yellow onions
3-4 inch piece of fresh ginger
5 pieces of star anise
6 whole cloves
3 inch cinnamon stick
1 ½ tablespoons of salt
4 tablespoons of fish sauce

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 white onion, sliced wafer thin, soaked in cold water 30 minutes before serving soup
3-4 scallions, green and white parts, cut into small rounds
½ a bunch of cilantro, chopped
Black pepper

Thin sliced jalapenos (leave the seeds in)
Bean sprouts (produce section, usually near the ginger and mushrooms)
Lime wedges
Thai basil (remember, there's no substitute)
Sriracha red pepper sauce (Oriental food section - big red plastic bottle)

Prepare the broth:

Cut the ends off the 2 yellow onions, char the onions and ginger over an open burner. I use a long carving fork, and rotate them around for about a minute each. Let these cool in a bowl.
In a stockpot, add the beef broth, 6 cans of hot water, 4 tablespoons of beef concentrate, 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, thinly sliced 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

The only less-than-authentic step you're omitting is to boil a huge amount of beef bones for half a day.  There are so many wonderful spices and flavors in this soup, I'd argue that for most home cooks this will still make a great bowl of pho that you'll be happy to serve to appreciative guests. 


Julie Jams said...

I love pho! Great insights.

Anonymous said...

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!

Vrinda said...

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

Anonymous said...

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.

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

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!

Lauren @ said...

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.

Anonymous said...

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

easyfoodsmith said...

This dish is new to me but it sounds delicious.

easyfoodsmith said...

This dish is new to me but it sounds delicious.

Elpiniki said...

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I just found your blog and I love it!
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Unknown said...

I love pho and your recipes look delicious, wonderful post!

Sandy @Southwestgirl said...

I've wanted to learn more about Vietnamese food! And thanks for adding the pronunciation of some of the words, I usually feel like and ninny trying to figure out how to say things :) Thanks for the friend request!

Britne @ Shabbott's Habits said...

I can see why this is one of your most popular posts. Pho is awesome! I've never thought to do it at home.

Unknown said...

Pho is awesome! I'm actually going to Vietnam in March.. looking forward to slurp up all the pho in town =)

Carmen Anderson - Video Editor/Producer said...

I love Pho! This is a very delicious recipe! Will definitely give your recipe a try soon! Great post!

Sprigs of Rosemary said...

Although I never made this, I've been reading about it a lot lately -- are you psychic? -- and have been wanting to try it. This will be a great way to spend a Saturday! And I do happen to have star anise. I love Better than Bouillon, too. Thanks for visiting -- I'll be back.

CJ - Food Stories said...

Thx for connecting with me on foodbuzz. I have subscribed to your blog and can't wait to see what your next creation is!