Souping up Asian cuisine
Mainstream menu makers noodle around with Vietnamese pho
By Amy Spector
(June 9, 2003) - The aromatic lure of pho, the noodle soup staple of Vietnamese cuisine, has enticed fans of the fragrant dish to Southeast Asian communities across the United States since Vietnamese emigrants flocked to this country three decades ago.
Now pho, which is pronounced fuh, has become a savory weapon in the restaurant noodle wars raging in metropolitan markets nationwide.
Expansion-minded noodle concepts like Brinker's Big Bowl; El Cerrito, Calif.-based Zao Noodle Bar; Chin's Asia Fresh of Minneapolis; and Doc Chey's Noodle House, based in Atlanta, all serve their take on the dish. Those restaurants are broadening the awareness of pho already created by regional chains like Pho Pasteur, based in Boston, and international chain Pho Hoa, operated and franchised by San Jose, Calif.,-based Aureflam Corp.
That is welcome news for Mai Pham, the chef-owner of Lemon Grass restaurant in Sacramento, Calif. and champion of the dish who jokingly refers to herself as "The Pho Lady." Through her articles and cookbooks, "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" and "The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking," Pham has spread the word and sparked interest in the dish that, like French author Marcel Proust's tisane-infused madeleine, triggers happy memories for Pham of her Saigon childhood.
On the surface, pho appears to be a simple combination of rice noodles, broth and sliced or pulled meat. But as with any culinaryclassic, the devil is in the details, and the dish's quality changes dramatically depending on the flavor and clarity of the traditionally beef-based broth, the cut of the noodles, the preparation of the meat additions and the freshness of the accompanying garnishes.
Eating pho can be a two-handed challenge for the initiate, involving both chopsticks to grab the noodles and a spoon to scoop the broth. Pho garnishes typically are fresh basil, fresh chili, lime wedges or kiffer lime leaves and bean sprouts, presented at the table and added to a bowl of pho according to each person's taste. Additional condiments commonly found on the South Vietnamese pho restaurant table are Vietnamese fish sauce, or nuoc nam; hoisin sauce; and sriracha or "rooster" chili sauce.
According to research and oral histories Pham has recorded in Vietnam, pho first gained popularity in Hanoi in North Vietnam and was brought to Saigon when northerners migrated south in the 1950s. But the dish traces its origins to China and France, she believes. Some pho historians think France's 100-year occupation of Vietnam led to the dish's name, a corruption of the final word in the French hot-pot dish, pot au feu, although the word "fun" also describes some Chinese noodles. The flavors, Pham says, bear a strong resemblance to a Chinese beef stew with noodles, infused with anise and ginger.
Pho dac biet, which means "house special pho," often heads the list of numerous pho choices at Vietnamese restaurants. It might include beef brisket, tendon, tripe and sliced rare beef. Pho also can be made with beef meatballs, called bo vien.
Slanted Door owner Charles Phan, whose Chinese family moved to South Vietnam before relocating to the United States, traveled to Hanoi in the late 1990s to study pho. "In the North the whole focus is on the broth," he says, and the dish comes with just sliced rare beef because North Vietnamese "don't add the beef tripe and tendon," he adds. In the South "they even add eggs. That's very typical for Vietnamese street vendors," he explains, because eggs are not perishable and increase the selling price.
"The original idea for my restaurant was to open a noodle shop," Phan says of his lauded San Francisco site in the Mission District, which has evolved into a haven for sophisticated Vietnamese cuisine. He currently is renovating that Slanted Door venue, operating from a 130-seat location on Brannon Street downtown, while negotiating to re-create the original site as the intended street food and noodle shop concept. Pho "is probably the most popular item at lunch," he notes, when he has served both chicken and beef variations.
For the beef pho, Phan reserves the beef fat skimmed from his stock, made from neck and shank bones, oxtail and brisket, and tops each bowl with a warmed ladleful. "Fat changes the depth of the flavor," he claims. His prefers Long Island red-chicken carcasses for his chicken stock because those chickens "take about six months to grow" and provide better meat texture and broth flavor, Phan feels. A local noodle shop makes fresh rice noodles to his specification. Since moving from the vegetarian-heavy Mission District, Phan says, his beef pho sales are gaining on the top-selling chicken version.
At Lemon Grass Pham offers pho as a special for $8.95 on Mondays and Tuesdays. "I tried to put it on the menu, but people didn't feel comfortable slurping [noodles] over a business lunch," she says. "But that may change."
She recalls a sight witnessed three years ago that convinced her of pho's international appeal. "In San Jose there's a Taco Bell next to a pho shop," she recalls. "The Taco Bell was not busy, but the pho shop was mobbed with Mexican families."
Reaching out to that Hispanic clientele and other non-Vietnamese audiences, flexible pho shops have begun serving seafood variations of the dish.
Although the South Vietnamese culinary repertoire includes a seafood noodle soup, hu tieu, that dish incorporates a different type of noodle. Aureflam Corp. operations manager Michael Nguyen, who overseas 90 restaurants that trade as Pho Hoa and Pho Cong Ly in 10 countries and 12 U.S. states, says his restaurants serve a salmon and shrimp pho prepared with a spicy seafood broth flavored with ginger and lemon grass.
Aureflam, started by Nguyen's brother, Binh Nguyen, in 1983, will expand to Florida in June at a site across from Disney World, Nguyen says. To illustrate the widespread awareness of pho, he recounts a recent experience at the company's restaurant near the Berkeley campus of the University of California. A white college student ordered pho, requesting rare beef served on the side to "cook" in the broth, something Nguyen had seen only Asian clients requesting, he says. "I asked her how she knew to order pho like that. And she told me, 'I've been eating pho since I was 15.' I was surprised," he notes.
In Southern California, where the largest Vietnamese community in the United States resides, pho purists still may prefer to trek to neighborhoods like "Little Saigon" in Westminster. But the dish's popularity has bubbled over into mainstream restaurants like Buddha's Belly, located on a trendy stretch of Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. That restaurant's rendition, "Vietnamese Pho Ga," priced at $8.75, includes tofu cubes and radicchio, a reflection of menu consultant Hisashi Yoshiara's experience with Japanese and Italian cuisines, says Buddha's Beily co-owner Jonathan Chu.
Chu's restaurant bases its pho broth on an aromatic chicken stock, Chu says, flavored with traditional spices as well as fried onion and cilantro. Buddha's Belly uses dried rice vermicelli for its noodles.
"The pho here, as in Vietnam, is a little bland," he says, because diners customize the soup to their tastes. Chu thought pho's mild quality was the reason why "women tend to order pho more than men." Buddha's Belly offers eight types of noodle soups, the most popular of which is "spicy tom yam koong Thai ramen."
Vietnamese chef Duy Van Pham of Flow restaurant at The Luna Hotel in Denver says he does not have the leeway to serve pho at the hotel's "cutting-edge contemporary French" restaurant. But "it influenced my food. The most dominant flavor in pho is the star anise. All the flavorings that would be in pho I put in veal stock and reduce it down," he says, to use in sauces for beef dishes.
And when Duy Van Pham needs a comforting meal at the end of his shift, "my dad makes pho for me at home," he enthuses. Michael Nguyen notes that pho is the perfect late-night food because "the rice noodles are easy to digest. It's very healthy."
Author and journalist Linda Burum, who is an authority on ethnic restaurants in Southern California, says she, too, has seen pho turn into a popular late-night dish in the region, particularly in the Koreatown section just west of downtown Los Angeles, where many pho restaurants have sprung up.
Richard Chey, creator of three-unit Doc Chey's Noodle House, put "two of my favorite dishes on the menu, pho and bun," the latter of which is a vermicelli that he serves as a cold noodle dish. He jazzes up his pho with carrots and tangy yu choy sum because, he explains, his mostly white clientele expects more than noodles and beef in their soup. Chey also uses a rice noodle slightly thicker than vermicelli, which holds its texture better, he feels. Doc Chey's "Vietnamese beef soup," pho, is one of six noodle soups on his menu and sells for $6.
Mai Pham helped Adam Willner draft his menu for Zao Noodle Bar, which trades at six locations in Northern California and Seattle. Vice president of operations Matthew Baizer says the two pho options, vegetable and chicken, "are just behind our lemon grass coconut chicken soup and our simple chicken soup" in sales. "We've slanted the menu toward Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes," he claims, with Vietnamese items accounting for "40 to 45 percent" of the list.
At Zao Noodle Bar each order comes with a "table salad" of Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime and Thai chili that servers explain to customers who are new to pho, Baizer says. But as for the traditional two-handed eating process, "people feel a little awkward," he says, so his staff lets customers figure that out for themselves.