Over the last few months, I've been souping it up in Pho-ladelphia. Home to the third largest Vietnamese population on the East Coast, this city has long been a destination for many great renditions of the deeply warming and aromatic noodle soup. Few meals in the world deliver more satisfaction for $10 or less. And since the winter chill settled in, slurping through a steamy pool of exotic broth, rice noodles, Thai basil, and sundry cuts of meat has been the equivalent of hitting the "defrost" button.
Learning to pronounce it correctly has been something of a career-long quest (I've sadly yet to master). Just say it as if asking a question: "Fuh?"
The eating part? I've refined that considerably as I hungrily prowled through many of the city's Vietnamese soup halls in search of my favorites.
But here, of course, it gets complex.
Philly's wider food culture cosmos has suddenly aligned to focus on pho, and this once exotic bowl of Asian soup is finally having its mainstream moment. There are pho shooters with tiny bobbing quail eggs on the luxurious weekend buffet at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse. The lunch menu at Rich Landau's new vegan street food bar, V Street, serves a mushroom-based "Pho French Dip." And there is a sleek new Fishtown pho counter run by a non-Vietnamese chef, Tyler Akin, who's been giving pho a "clean" modern upgrade with hormone-free beef bones, top-notch spices and no MSG.
Pho has also become a darling for the Paleo diet craze, and the focus on nutritious "bone broth" that's become one of the hottest trends. The Feast Your Eyes catering company, in fact, is offering a "Pho Friday" cooking class and dinner tomorrow night at its commissary (1750 N. Front St. 215-634-3002) in South Philadelphia.
On the cusp of pho's taco-like crossover from "ethnic" specialty onto America's Main Street menu, however, I felt compelled to return to the authentic source for some enlightenment on what, in fact, makes a good one. Because for those who did not grow up Vietnamese, it can frankly be challenging to discern significant differences between one big look-alike bowl of pho from the other.
The pho's soul is in its broth. But if you're tasting closely, the craftsmanship and seasoning will become apparent. Are the intricate spices (star anise, Saigon cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, among many others) deeply woven and in balance?
"I was initially leaving cloves out because I never really liked cloves in anything," concedes Akin. "But we began adding them a couple months ago, and it's begun to tie it all together."
Is the broth cloudy or clear?
"Clear is what you go for back in the motherland," says Tuan Tran, whose mother, Dung Tran, rises at 4 a.m. daily to make one of my new pho favorites at Thang Long on Kensington Avenue. "If your broth is not clear you're doing something wrong."
Does it have the rich lip-coating texture of broth steeped from good bones with marrow? Is it steamy enough to make you sweat?
"It has to be piping hot," says Lê, the Vietnamese-born owner of Hop Sing Laundromat. "Also, when they put the bean sprouts and basil in front of you, I want to make sure it's fresh."
Of course, the dish's typically abundant entourage of fragrant garnishes - platters of herbs, bean sprouts, citrus wedges and jalapeño, squeeze bottles of sauce - can be distracting.
"Once the basil and lime are in there, anything that differentiates one bowl from another is mostly lost," says Akin, a purist who's done more than any chef in recent months to further the pho dialogue.
Don't even think about squirting sweet hoisin or spicy Sriracha into the bowl: "They are meant for dipping pieces of meat into," says Akin.
Akin's bold BYOB experiment to upgrade the classic at Stock has been a flashpoint for some, largely habitués of the larger cheaper Vietnamese soup halls in South Philadelphia who gripe that $9 a bowl made with superior ingredients was too expensive compared with a slightly cheaper version made with lower-grade beef. (The same people, no doubt, have no problem spending $13 for a bowl of ramen. Akin also now also serves a $7 "small" bowl that isn't very small at all – so the value criticism is moot.)
But I also nitpicked in my October review over the question of a missing familiar flavor. While Akin's broth achieved a profoundly beef depth, its seasoning lacked a certain "native edge."
It might have been that clove. But the search for that elusive note is what subsequently launched me on this obsessive three-month crawl through the city's many authentic pho pots to discern exactly what it was I was seeking. I went from one end of Washington Avenue to the other, through Chinatown and Kensington, too, where a small, lesser-known enclave of excellent Vietnamese noodles shops sits beneath the Frankford El.
I occasionally veered from my prime focus on standard beef soup (pho bò) to myriad worthy variations with chicken (pho gá) and the chile-fired pork-and-beef bowls of Central Vietnam (bún bò hue). I came to appreciate the gelatinous chew of a proper beef tendon, the noodle-like snap of delicate, frilly tripe. I made pho at home. I even learned some off-the-menu lingo - nuóc beó (Newk-BAIL) please! - that will surely impress your server as well as enrich your soup. This in-the-know side of rendered beef fat is the tasty equivalent of Viet schmaltz.
But I have also come to agree with Akin, after a recent revisit, that at least part of the elusive flavor I was missing at Stock was . . . MSG. The controversial flavor enhancer, a naturally occurring sodium salt (that many people attribute to headaches) is a standard presence in pretty much every authentic restaurant pho I sampled beyond Stock. The essential seasonings were there in Stock's bowl, but they remained subtle without the benefit of MSG's pop.
"I have no problem with people who do it," says Akin. "I've read the studies and the MSG syndrome has been largely debunked. But as a chef it's important to me to try to arrive at depth of flavor naturally. We experimented with it, and I was amazed at what this powder could do. It gave a boost. It made it more thrilling for a few bites. But after a big bowl, it was exhausting."
I'm not as dogmatic about avoiding MSG as Akin. But after the five bowls I sampled back-to-back one afternoon on my first Washington Avenue pho crawl, my mouth was on fire with the after burn of MSG's umami overdrive. I can't recommend such a gauntlet.
The best, though, used MSG only sparingly. And when savored individually, I found some wonderful, trip-worthy bowls of soup, brimming with a deep meaty resonance and seasonings that shimmered as one.
"Even if do you put MSG there, which is standard," said Nam Hoang, manager at one of my favorites, Pho Saigon, "you need to put in enough beef. You still need to taste the soup."
And that is exactly what I did, one slurp at a time. My Philly Pho-tacular, detailed here, found some brothy wonders to treasure all winter long.
Philly Pho Finder
I visited a dozen authentic soup halls across three of Philly's prime pho zones: Washington Avenue (the heart of Viet Philly), East Kensington (the hidden pho enclave), and Chinatown (Philly's first Vietnamese community). Below are my favorites, by category: classic beef, chicken pho gà, and spicy beef-pork, bún bò hue.
Many full-service Vietnamese restaurants serve very good pho (Vietnam Restaurant, Vietnam Palace, Nam Phuong, Le Viet, Mekong River). For this survey, I focused on other more-soup-centric restaurants that specialize primarily in pho.
Best Beef Pho Bò
Thang Long. 2536 Kensington Ave., 215-425-0078; thanglongphilly.com.
The Tran family owns Mac's Poultry, the live bird butcher right next door to their surprisingly well-appointed restaurant in the shadow of the Frankford El. So they are rightly proud of their fresh chicken pho gà with downy soft strips of meat in a lemongrass-rich broth. But it is the beef pho here that really hit a sweet spot for me with its genuine homespun touch. That comes from matron and chef Dung Tran, who rises at 4 a.m. daily to get the oxtails and marrow bones simmering, according to her mother's North Vietnamese recipe. There is definitely a rustic touch to the presentation, but the chippy beef is surprisingly tender, and the overall effect is one of deeply steeped pho harmony at its best, with a tingle of slow-charred ginger and ginseng that lingers at the back of the throat. Also not to miss: the excellent spring rolls and exceptional Hanoi-style pork.
Pho Saigon. 1100 S. Columbus Blvd. No. 22, 267-773-7305.
Set in a Columbus Boulevard strip mall off Washington Avenue, Pho Saigon is a relative newcomer to South Philly's bustling Southeast Asian commercial strip. It's also a brighter, cleaner, and more pleasant space than the rest, with a broader menu to supplement the soup. But it's really the polished beef pho here that sets it apart, with careful layering of ingredients (the rare beef was elevated to avoid premature cooking). It also had by far the beefiest-flavored broth in the neighborhood, rounded by vivid sweet spices that popped with a squeeze of lime, and a bountiful plate of extremely fresh herbs, including some (culantro) not offered elsewhere. The big flat-screens can be a plus for sports fans, too - just not on football Sundays, when the TVs are turned off. "We're packed," says manager Nam Hoang. "And we need those tables to rotate fast."
Huong Tràm. Hoa Binh Plaza, 1601 Washington Ave., 215-545-4067.
This gem is hidden inside the gallery of a supermarket plaza on the less-traveled end of Washington, west of Broad. But it's worth seeking. Just renovated in September and renamed from Nam Son (the excellent banh mi bakery still next door), Hung Tràm makes one of the best bowls of beef pho on the strip, a naturally flavored broth that bumps with star anise and other spice, but is the epitome of subtlety and balance. The broad menu has other highlights, including a spot-on crispy crepe and my favorite cup of dark, sweet Vietnamese coffee.
Stock. 308 E. Girard Ave.; stockphilly.com.
Tyler Akin takes no shortcuts with the natural brew he steeps for 24 hours from grass-fed bones and top-notch spices at his minimalist Fishtown pho counter. Deliberate omission of the usual MSG, however, makes it a notable outlier in flavor. There's an admirably deep beefiness bolstered by excellent-quality brisket and rare beef, but the lack of MSG leaves the soup with a more subtle seasoning that I've come to appreciate. Akin's umami-bomb mushroom pho, meanwhile, is the absolutely best vegetarian pho in town.
Vietnam House. 901 Race St., 215-413-2828; vietnamhouse.ordersnapp.com.
This bare-bones corner is one of the newer options for Vietnamese fare in Chinatown - but also one of the best, especially for late-night souping. Like the no-frills decor, the presentations have a home-style look, but the somewhat cloudy bone-broth beef pho strikes a coveted harmony with background spice (cinnamon, clove, and star anise) that swirls deep through this soulful, beefy broth. The bún riêu, a tangy tomato-tamarind broth-noodle soup with funky crab-shrimp meatballs, also satisfies an acquired taste. Added night-owl bonus: Pho's on until 3 a.m. weekends.
Pho 75. 1122 Washington Ave., 215-271-5866.
Long my favorite noodle haven on the avenue, this utilitarian-but-still-tidy soup hall chain has slipped a notch. The bowls are still meticulously built, and the broth is crystalline. But compared with the competition, the broth's flavor here was pale and more sedate than I recalled, with a salty aftertaste. Pho 75 still has the snappiest noodles of the lot, and tender fatty brisket. In a way, because it delivers such a simple, low-profile pho, it may still remain one of the best places for newbies to start.
Best Pho Gà (chicken)
Cafe Pho Ga Thanh Thanh. 2539 Kensington Ave., 215-427-0483.
Chuong Le and his chef-wife, Woa Nguyen, were among the restaurant pioneers in this lesser-known enclave of Vietnamese businesses in East Kensington. And while the menu is far more limited than Thang Long across the street, their single-minded mastery of chicken pho gà earns them a "must-visit" designation. Their chicken broth - made from whole birds freshly killed each morning - is positively electric, with a complexity that comes, son Tony says, from his mother's keen sense of timing as to when to add each layer of ginger, herbs, and spice. Regulars get half chickens and strip them clean on the side of plain bowls of noodles and soup. But first-timers should start with a fully composed bowl with noodles and chicken. Most important, do not miss Thanh Thanh's secret weapon: a tiny dipping dish of salt, pepper, lime juice, habanero slivers, and lemon leaves that can elevate a simple slice of chicken into something magical.
Best Bún Bò Hue (spicy beef-pork soup)
Cafe Diem. 1031 S. Eighth St., 215-923-8347.
This tiny, family-run pho-asis just north of Washington Avenue has gotten a sleekly tiled decor upgrade from the no-frills dive I recall from years ago. And its rendition of common beef pho was still excellent, built from rich stock with vibrant sweet spice that became almost lush with an extra shake of fish sauce. The most compelling reason to visit Diem, though, is a glass bowl of the bún bò hue, the spicy beef-pork soup typical of Central Vietnam. Diem's positively crackles, from the lip-numbing sheen of roasty orange chile oil floating on top to the herbal blast of scallions and lemongrass, and a funky undertow, both briny and sweet, that bathes thicker, spaghetti-shaped rice noodles. Adventure meat-lovers should try the deluxe version, which adds snappy, bolognalike Viet ham to the standard array of rare beef, tendon ribbons. and jellied chunks of pig's feet.
Homemade pho is not only tricky, but costly, too
Cooking pho at home the right way is not a casual undertaking nor an inexpensive commitment. And success is hardly guaranteed if you choose the wrong recipe.
After eight hours of simmering an expensive pile of locally sourced grass-fed beef bones ($60-plus from Kensington Quarters), my wife made it clear that the disappointingly bland recipe from Vietnamese Home Cooking (Ten Speed Press, 2012) by the noted San Francisco chef Charles Phan wasn't going to cut it.
"Who spends an entire weekend day trying to make pho at home when you can get a far better bowl for $7 on Washington Avenue?" she asked.
That's the logical question. But just as there will always be people determined to master a 30-ingredient mole, there will be those determined to perfect the fine art of pho.
Tyler Akin is one. The former Zahav and Little Serow cook got hooked on the soup during his travels in Southeast Asia. And he has continuously refined the procedure for the rich MSG-free broth he serves at Stock, his minimalist pho counter in Fishtown. The recipe has come a long way since he began his pho-cooking a few years ago - with that same basic Phan template.
Aside from a more intense dose of seasonings in the mix, Akin grill-chars the ginger and onions, and carefully toasts his spices to enhance their punch. Freshness and quality of the spices also matter. Akin sources his from New York vendor La Boîte (laboiteny.com), using "whole-bark" Saigon cinnamon, black cardamom, and the darkest palm sugar available.
Finally, don't overlook (or overcook) the rice noodles. Akin's tip: Look for fresh rice noodles, usually near tofu at Asian markets, which cook more consistently than dried.
If all goes well with this recipe (a short version of Akin's), your guests won't be longing for Washington Avenue, but asking for a second bowl. - Craig LaBan
Tyler Akin's Home-style (no MSG) Pho
Serves 8 to 10, depending on size of bowl
10 pounds beef bones by preference: shank (ideally with meat attached), oxtails, knuckles, feet, neck, or mixed (see Note)
1 5-inch piece of unpeeled ginger, split lengthwise
1 medium yellow onion, split and peeled
5 star anise pods
8 whole cloves
1 1/2 sticks cinnamon (or sub 1/8 cup of whole bark Saigon cinnamon, do not sub ground cinnamon)
1/4 cup coriander seeds
2 black cardamom pods, crushed to release seeds
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons palm sugar (darkest shade available)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 pounds beef brisket, cut into approximately 3-by-3-inch chunks.
2 pounds rice noodles (preferably fresh, but dried is OK)
To Garnish: Mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime wedges, jalapeños, sriracha sauce, hoisin sauce
1. Place bones in pot large enough to cover with two inches of water. Bring to boil and allow to boil for 10 minutes.
2. Drain contents of pot into clean sink and allow bones to cool briefly. Rinse and scrub each bone, returning to clean pot. (Blanching and cleaning bones will produce a clear and beautiful stock.)
2. While bones are blanching, place split length of ginger and yellow onion on a hot grill or on the grates of a gas stove. Char both sides until black, but not carbonized. Cut ginger into half-inch pieces. Set ginger and onion aside.
3. Add 10 quarts of water to pot with cleaned bones; add palm sugar, granulated sugar, and kosher salt. Simmer over moderate heat for 6 hours. Skim any remaining scum.
4. Toast all spices in a hot, dry pan for two minutes or a 300-degree oven until aromatic, about 10 minutes. Add toasted spices, charred ginger and onion and brisket and simmer for 2 additional hours. If pieces are not extremely tender, continue simmering for 15-30 more minutes.
5. Remove brisket and place into ice water bath. Strain soup through finest mesh sieve available. Cool overnight to allow fat to solidify for removal or let rest 15 minutes in order to skim most of fat off using a ladle. (It is important to leave some fat, as it coats the mouth and enhances the beefiness of your pho.)
6. Refrigerate soup up to five days or freeze up to three months.
7. To finish: Assemble garnish plates.
8. If using dried rice noodles, cook in boiling water until tender (about 6 to 10 minutes, depending on width), then rinse thoroughly in a colander with cold water. If using fresh rice noodles, cook 3 to 5 seconds in boiling water using a Chinese "spider" utensil then immediately submerge in ice water to stop cooking and rinse starch. Place in colander.
9. Bring stock to boil. Taste and adjust with fish sauce and palm or granulated sugar to your preference.
10. Rinse noodles again with room temperature water, and distribute evenly between 6 to 8 bowls. Place a pinch of scallions, a small handful of cilantro, brisket, and raw flank slices in each bowl. Ladle pho into each bowl and serve immediately. Tease any clumped noodles gently with chopsticks.
11. Garnish as desired. (Sriracha and hoisin should not be added to the bowl of soup. They are meant for dipping pieces of meat into.)
Note: At least half of the bones should contain exposed bone marrow. Most butchers will cut bones into one- or two-inch cross sections. Doing so will extract more collagen without simmering for 18 to 24 hours, producing more gelatin to give soup a substantial texture.
Per serving (based on 10 without garnishes): 267 calories; 24 grams protein; 28 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 6 grams fat; 69 milligrams cholesterol; 1,458 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.