For a city more familiar with the rhythms of norteño and Rosario’s enchiladas suizas, Vietnamese food may sound like a suggestion best left to wayward Yankees and Anthony Bourdain wannabes. However, any misgivings or uncertainties dissipate before a well-prepared bowl of fragrant pho, the Vietnamese comfort food as tender as your favorite sweatpants and a season of Lost. Pho, pronounced “fuh,” not “foe,” is the national soup of Vietnam. Although the exact origins of pho are uncertain, most Vietnamese agree that it first gained popularity during the early twentieth century in response to the cultural influence of French occupation.
Pho is composed of three basic ingredients: rice noodles, meat, and a clear fragrant stock. The basic components themselves are not unknown to the American palate, and, once understood, the dish is as down home as macaroni and cheese. First, rice noodles, banh pho, are cooked al dente and piled in a snow-white mound in a large bowl to which thin strips of cooked and rare meats are then added. Staple menu options include steak, brisket, eye of round, and flank steak; more exceptional are tendon, tripe, and meatballs. Other common versions of pho include chicken noodle soup (pho ga), pork noodle soup (pho lon), and vegetable noodle soup (pho chay).
Lastly, and most importantly, the stock is added. Without the stock, the dish is as unremarkable as cafeteria spaghetti. A culinary treasure, the stock is the product of hours, if not days, of careful seasoning and simmering, resulting in a delectable broth of both depth and a surprising clarity. Not only can you taste the savory beefiness of the meat in each spoonful, but also cinnamon, star anise, ginger, cardamom, and fennel.
Each steaming bowl of savory noodle soup is merely your starting point: you also receive dipping sauces, herbs, vegetables, and spicy chili pastes. Typical garnishes include bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, chili peppers, lime, and onions. Traditional condiments, such as Hoisin sauce, fish sauce, spicy Sriracha, and of course the omnipresent soy, are typically available to personalize every bowl.
Proper protocol is required when enjoying pho, which is eaten with a Chinese-style soupspoon and chopsticks. A quick how-to session provided by a waiter at Pho Hai An yielded precise directions: with the spoon in your left hand and chopsticks in the right, pile the noodles onto the spoon using the chopsticks, making sure to get some of the meat and garnish. Then, carefully dip the spoon into the bowl to inundate your noodles with stock, and bring your well-loaded utensil to your mouth.
While it seems like it would be messy, the deep bed of the spoon allows for some very manageable, and even more satisfying, slurping. The many elements of a pho meal, combined with the involved eating process, even help one to slow a hectic heart rate by focusing on creating the perfect bite. Followed by another and another … By the time your bowl is slurped clean, you most likely will have forgotten whatever it was that was bothering you in the first place.
Pho Cong Ly
Located off of 281 and Bitters, Pho Cong Ly offers an extensive menu of Vietnamese dishes, including a section called “The Adventurer’s Choice.” Unlike other restaurants, Pho Cong Ly serves pho with a clear stock, unclouded by greasy oils or murky char. Each table is loaded with an arsenal of sauces and potted condiments. For the brimming bottles of fish sauce alone, Pho Cong Ly is a keeper. Some restaurants ration their fish sauce, doling it out by the thimbleful. I recommend P12, Pho Tai, Nam, Gan, (eye of round steak, well-done flank, and soft tendon), for an exploration of more textures than you thought possible to eat in a single meal. Warning: The meatballs in P4, Pho Chin, Bo Vien, are extremely chewy, even spongy. 300 W Bitters Rd Suite # 115, (210) 499-5572, Hours: Mon-Sun 11am-10pm, Prices: Lunch and Dinner $4.75-$12.00
Pho Hai An
For the timid or first-time pho-er, Pho Hai An is a great place to start your soon-to-be obsession. The pho menu is limited to pho ba and pho ga, requiring only a quick answer when your waiter asks, “Beef or chicken?” The staff was very friendly, and answered all our questions about pho eating etiquette and even welcomed us to their shop with a handful of Blow Pops. I am partial to beef pho. Chicken pho is too often a tough, leathery affair, overcooked and underwhelming. The flavors and textures of the pho served at Pho Hai An are the most familiar to the American palate. Pho Hai An has rearranged America’s proverbial chicken noodle soup, a true expression of the American melting pot. 4934 Windsor HL, (210) 590-1688, Hours: Mon-Sat 11am-9pm, Prices: Lunch $6.50; Dinner $7.50
Pho 4 Star
A few hundred feet further east on the same stretch of Walzem as Pho Hai An, Pho 4 Star is a bright, tidy noodle shop with trendy Zen décor and a solid Vietnamese menu. Item 1f caught my eye: weldon flank pho. It arrived from the kitchen accompanied by delicate fresh spring rolls. As the stock of pho rolled over my by-now seasoned tongue, I picked up the rich tastes of roasted onions, and the delectable heartiness of the beef marrow alongside the pungent spiciness of cinnamon and anise. However, the mysterious weldon flank was tough and nearly impossible to chew. Next time I come to Pho 4 Star, I will definitely stick to eye of round, brisket, or (possibly rubbery) chicken. 5009 Walzem Rd, (210) 599-9968, Hours: Sun-Thurs 11am-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 11am-10pm, Prices: Lunch and Dinner $5.49-$12.99 •