For the fifth or sixth time in less than a week, I am driving through the Lion Arch at the Eden Center in Falls Church, the commercial heart of Washington's Vietnamese American community. At my side, a worn canvas tote bag contains several plastic to-go containers filled with soup.
In the buildup to the Lunar New Year, I am delivering my version of Vietnam's traditional beef noodle soup, pho (pronounced fuh), for tasting by chefs and merchants who grew up eating it.
Pho is supposed to be simple. But so far, the response to my efforts threatens to drive me round the bend.
"Too much spice," says one Vietnamese expert.
"Not enough spice," says another.
"Too much beef."
"Not enough beef."
"The problem," opines one restaurant owner, "is not enough depth."
Who knew this steaming soup, swimming with rice noodles, filled with heaps of cilantro and other herbs, could stir such different opinions? Yet, such is the nature of pho. Months earlier, my wife, a professional chef and fervent pho partisan, nearly came to blows with a Vietnamese restaurant manager when the bowl of pho she ordered failed to deliver the spicy star anise aroma to which we had become accustomed.
At that moment, I made it my mission to track down a singularly authentic pho recipe. Now, after tireless investigation, and just when I thought I had a pho worthy of showing off to experts, I learn there is no such thing: It seems that everyone, whether from northern or southern Vietnam, whether raised on his own mother's pho, or recently converted to Vietnam's national soup, has a firm and personal idea of how pho should taste.
In its native country, pho is simply great street food -- inexpensive, thick with noodles, fragrant with an array of Asian herbs and spices, onion and ginger and eaten nearly 24 hours a day, especially for breakfast. Vietnamese immigrants introduced it here in restaurants after the war ended in 1975: You can hardly pass a strip mall in some parts of the Washington region without being propositioned by a neon pitch for pho.
"Restaurant" is a bit of a stretch for these eateries. They're more like roadhouses, with long rows of Formica-topped tables sporting a few essential accouterments: chopsticks and plastic soup spoons, a paper napkin dispenser, a large bottle of red chili sauce, a squirt bottle of hoisin. The menu may look long, but it's really just 20 or so variations on a short list of lesser beef cuts (chuck, brisket, top round) to choose for your soup, along with some less-common parts (tendon, tripe) in a "regular" or "large" (meaning Really Big) bowl.
Oh, but the bowl of soup that arrives at your table when it is made correctly! It will be steaming hot, with vapors enough to fog your glasses. The bowl itself will have been dipped in boiling water. It will be thick with freshly cooked rice noodles. The broth -- hardly beefy by western standards, but unctuous and lightly floral -- will be almost boiling hot -- hot enough to cook the thinly sliced raw beef that is often placed in the bowl. And it will be topped with sliced scallions, cilantro leaves and shavings of fresh onions, the surface shimmering with droplets of beef fat, begging you to admire first, then dig in with your chopsticks and soup spoon.
On the side, invariably, will be a plate of fresh bean sprouts and Thai basil, to be added to the soup -- along with any of the other condiments -- at the diner's discretion. The message seems to be: Accept this, the chef's best effort, and change it as you please. All for around $6 a bowl, making pho not only fun, but one of the great food bargains of our time.