It is time to write about Pho. I have posted pictures, tweeted, and have single-handedly introduced more white people (especially my friends and family in Spokane) to this Southeast Asian delight than ANY OTHER WHITE PERSON EVER! Ok…I may have exaggerated a little, but it IS true that many of my white friends, who may have heard of this wonderful soup from Travel TV but have been reluctant…no…scared to walk through those mysterious doors out of nothing more than good old fashioned fear, were introduced to this magical meal from me, Irish Mike.
I first tasted Pho (yes, pronounced ‘fuh’..not FO!) around 10 years ago in a little Vietnamese enclave just inside of Redmond. Having no clue what it was or from whence it came, I ordered what the other guy ordered, with chicken. Rule 1, if you are going to partake in this tasty dish DO NOT EVER order it with chicken, seafood, or vegetarian…at least not the first dozen times you order it. Pho is a BEEF noodle soup and it is made with rich beef broth and traditionally served with all sorts of mystery beefy bits, although in the US it is traditionally served with rare steak, well done beef brisket, meat balls, tendon, and other fatty morsels. This is really not designed to be a vegetarian dish. Don’t get me wrong, when this delicious soup is served with the condiments of green onion white onion, cilantro, lime, jalapeno, bean sprouts, and Thai Basil, you could feel like your soup was “topped with salad,” and therefore can be deceptive.
I am not here to be a hater on veg, I am simply saying that if you want to eat this soup “authentically” then you must have it with the beefy bits that it is historically made with. You see, this Hanoi specialty is like a lot of great international cuisine, it is the food of the peasants, the poor, the lower class, those in poverty. They have consistently been some of the most resourceful cooks and eaters our world has ever seen. Think gizzards, collareds, street tacos, gumbo, catfish, and of course…Pho. The poor seem to have been onto something. What I think is most fascinating about Pho, is that when it was thought to be introduced in the 1920s, it was surrounded by French colonialists! Sure they brought the baguette to Vietnam to help us with the Banh Mi, but c’mon, but they didn’t introduce much else by way of cooking to this part of the world. The people they were trying to rule were eating better than these imperialists!
Listen, I know there are better treatises on this simply prepped food, but my “angle” for this piece is simple and straightforward…how many white people have YOU introduced to Pho? Let me say this too, I became interested in food writing BECAUSE of Pho. That is not a joke nor is it an exaggeration. After having that first bowl in Redmond, I soon moved back to my hometown of Spokane, and was desperate to find this mysterious, rich concoction. Not too long after I moved back (around 2002), I found Pho Van, right next door to the famous Jack and Dan’s Tavern, sometimes better known as the place that NBA Hall of Famer and Gonzaga U great John Stockton’s dad ran while Stockton was dishing out assists to Karl Malone. The ONLY place to watch the Utah Jazz during the 90’s.
Pho Van is one of those places where the sign is confusing, the location is dirty, and the entrance is flat out confusing. Although there is a door on the Hamilton side (one of Spokane’s busiest North-South streets), the most common door, is a red door, by the dumpsters. Serious. No sign back there…no…you go through TWO doors, both nasty to get to a clean, simply decorated Vietnamese restaurant. I must have eaten there 40 times. I have taken my folks, my cousins, friends, and even had business meetings there, all over a bowl of Pho Thai, the basic rare steak and well done brisket bowl of Pho that is perfect for beginners. Ordering a side of spring rolls (Vietnamese spring rolls are fresh rice paper…never fried) to get us going, and maybe a Vietnamese coffee to finish, in between was equal parts teaching and slurping. I love that my white friends would then begin to suggest it to their white friends and they would suggest to theirs and so on after are initial experience. Once I found it, and consumed bowlful after bowlful, I began to write…
Here is the “right” way, although the beauty of Pho, is that it is more of a season-to-taste dish than anything I have ever experienced.
- Piping hot soup is placed in front of you. Goal is clean beefy broth taste, noodles not clumped together, and loaded with “cooked” condiments of cilantro, white and green onion, and possibly some crispy shallots. If you order Pho Thai (rare steak and well done brisket), there should be some reddish pink super thin sliced pieces of meat over the top. Poke this into the your broth with your chopsticks to allow to continue cooking.
- A side plate is also served, with bean sprouts, a few jalapeno slices, a couple of lime wedges, and hopefully 2-3 good size sprigs of Thai Basil (the ones with purple steps)
- Condiments at the table should include Siracha (AKA Red Rooster sauce), chili paste, hoisin, and soy.
- Drop in a handful of bean sprouts over the steaming noodles, squeeze at least one lime wedge, drop a jalapeno in (I don’t ever eat it, just like the broth to draw out that fresh spicy flavor), and the most important part is this: pull off the Thai basil off the stalks, move the leaves around with your hands to draw out their oil, and THEN tear and scatter across your soup.
- For optimum sweet and spice ratio, I squeeze 1 part Siracha to 1 parts hoisin (sort of an asian molasses), but this is where you can go hotter by adding the chili paste, or milder and sweeter with hoisin. Make a mistake? No worries, just balance it out with the other. It may seem weird putting sauce into your soup, but let me tell you, it makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE. Ditch the soy…save it for a noodle salad or something.
- Take those chopsticks and poke/stir those new ingredients in and let it all come together. Grab some rice noodle and/or beef out of the bowl with chopsticks and slurp away (slurping is not only welcome…but encouraged!). Once you power through the hearty stuff, take that cool asian soup spoon and drink up that delicious broth. If you are sick, I swear it will cure you. It must be something like those old grandma’s putting rum in baby’s mouths or something…it will cure your cold, as well as your soul!
I was fortunate recently to be “on assignment” with the Seattle Weekly for their database (Pho File) of ALL Pho joints in King County. I was charged with the easternmost outposts, two in Issaquah (Jenny Pho, and Issaquah Pho), and one in Factoria (I Love Pho). I catalogued the everything from the decor, to the condiments, to the taste. The owner of Jenny Pho even took me to the back into his kitchen! I got the full experience, and am happy to be a part of this great project.
I don’t what else I could say. I mean, this is probably the one and only time I will write about this meal, at least at this length. It is simply one of the very best meals ever, anywhere, ever. If I can choose my last meal, a bowl of Pho would be one of the courses, simple as that.