This post is intended for those who have wanted to try this popular dish but may have been a bit intimidated by all the garnishments and meat choices encountered at pho restaurants in the U.S. To the rest, who already know it well, you can keep me in check.
Pho is one of the most beloved Vietnamese dishes. Pho (pronounced "fuh") to most Americans means Vietnamese beef noodle soup but that is technically beef pho or pho bo. There is also chicken pho and lesser known pork pho. Beef pho is the bridge for many Americans when it comes to trying Vietnamese food as numerous pho houses have popped up in cities across the nation. I am always pleasantly surprised when someone tells me they’ve become addicted to this traditional dish. To me the pho broth has magical, restorative benefits - it is the first meal I want after a weary trip, the cure for a hangover, and the perfect meal on a cold night.
Pho gets its distinctly sweet, savory flavors from hours of stewing beef bones with charred onion and ginger and a cheesecloth of spices ranging from cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and black cardamom - in combinations that vary from chef to chef. Each person's broth is different and distinguishes one pho house from another.
Trying pho for the first time in Vietnam might actually be simplest. When I was back in Hanoi recently there wasn’t a list of five meats and twenty combinations to figure out. You simply ordered pho and then a bowl appears before you as you sit on a small stool and eat in an open restaurant. However, in the U.S. some pho menus are a full page long with several permutations of the various meat combinations for each bowl.
If you’ve decided to try pho and have now found your way to a small neighborhood restaurant, you’ll most likely open the menu and see words and meat combinations you don’t understand. Well let’s walk through it now.
The Meats - Here are all the different meat options:
Tai- rare eye of round steak (served rare but cooked by the broth)
Chin – well done lean meat
Nam – well done flank
Gau – fat brisket
Gan – soft tendon
Sach – tripe
Ve Don –skirt flank
Bo vien – beef meatballs
To the beginner I suggest starting with pho tai, the simplest pho with rare beef. It is the most approachable. Pho tai is made by assembling cuts of rare beef on top of rice noodles in a bowl. The rare beef is cooked when the boiling broth is ladled into the bowl. (Some folks request the rare beef on the side so that they can add it to their bowl themselves – ensuring that the meat remains barely cooked). Pho tai nam or tai chin is the next suggestion giving a bit more variation to simple pho tai with the addition of well done lean meat or flank. I prefer the tai nam to the tai chin because the chin meat tends to be more dry. If you want to dive in and try them all, then the pho dac biet (literally, special pho) order generally includes all the different cuts of meat. The bo vien is chewy and fun to eat. Sometimes you can specify plain bo vien or bo vien gan (meatballs with bits of tendon for extra texture). Also you should know that you can request any combination of the available meats at a pho restaurant, even if they are not among the enumerated No. 1 through No. 20 combinations provided for you on the menu. This is usually fine and accepted as each bowl is made to order. At the end of the day what you choose to include depends on your personal taste.
The Broth – You can actually specify the kind of broth you want for your pho. The broth is referred to simply as nuoc pho (literally, pho water). For the nuoc pho, you can request nuoc beo (fatty broth) or nuco cham (clear broth).
The Noodles – Pho is eaten with rice noodles called banh pho. Banh pho can vary in width from a thin 5mm noodle to a toothier 1cm or more. Generally a pho restaurant offers one kind of banh pho and it is not something you can specify. However, there are some that offer fresh banh pho which tends to be of the wider variety. I prefer the fresh banh pho and recommend trying it if you are at a restaurant that offers it.
The Accoutrements – Before I get to the many things you can do to customize your pho experience, you will find that a bowl of pho already comes garnished with scallions, sliced onions, and cilantro. I mention this only because some people have an aversion to cilantro (although, I personally think it is one of most wonderful herbs on the planet). You will find this sensitivity recognized at many Korean pho restaurants, where they will “warn” customers that pho has cilantro and allow you to order it without.
Now onto the garnishments and condiments. After you’ve ordered your bowl, a plate is brought to the table containing: bean sprouts, Thai basil, sliced chili peppers, lime wedges and sometimes saw herb.
On the table you’ll also find: hot chili sauce (typically Sriracha sauce), Hoisin sauce, black pepper, and fish sauce.
Before you start putting things in I suggest trying the broth first. See what it tastes like and note how it changes with what you add.
Now what to add? Here’s where a bit of history helps. Pho originated in Northern Vietnam and there the people tend to be purists. The only thing they add to pho is lime, chili sauce, and sometimes Thai basil. Their philosophy is that the broth is the focus of this dish and less is more when it comes to messing with it. As someone who is Northern Vietnamese, I try not to wince when someone adds Hoisin sauce or bean sprouts into their bowl as those will completely overpower the broth’s beefy flavor. That said, do what you like.
When adding the herbs it is nice to shred them to release their flavors. A dash of black pepper will provide some spice. I add sliced chili peppers instead of the Sriracha to give spiciness without altering too much of the broth. However, either is fine. A squeeze of lime is a must as the tanginess is a nice balance to the richness of the broth. If the broth is too salty, more lime can mellow it further. I like the flavor of Hoisin sauce and Sriracha but I don’t like the way it overpowers the broth. So I use one of the small dipping plates and squirt a bit of each onto it for dipping my meats. This way the broth remains as pure as possible.
For the Advanced - Never on the menu but always ordered by my parents is a side dish of hang giam (sliced onions soaked in vinegar) or hang tran (green onion bulbs blanched in pho broth). I’ve only eaten pho with hang giam and find that it is a nice way to cut the fattiness of the beef broth. If you order it, you can add a bit of sugar and lime juice to the onions to temper the flavors and then mix in some hot chili sauce.