A universal point of reference for most Vietnamese food lovers, pho also provides a common point of departure for those who take seriously the many ways it can be made and eaten. Did I say many? Figure about a million. Even for Vietnamese Americans such as Le Lai, one of the sisters who run the restaurant -- Huong Que (Four Sisters) in the Eden Center -- the lure of pho and its possibilities prove irresistible.
"My sister Lieu eats pho every day. And when I was pregnant with my first son, I had to have pho every day, too," said Lai. "I just love to mix the sauces together and put them in my pho." Lai also insists on ordering nuoc beo, a bowl of rendered beef fat with scallions, to be spooned into the pho as a thickener, and a side plate of hanh dam, thinly sliced onions seasoned with vinegar, with her pho.
Not everybody who grew up eating pho is sold on the proliferation of pho restaurants around Washington, however. They're more attached to the way Mom made pho at home.
"If you're just getting it for yourself, then I suppose it's convenient to buy it at a restaurant," said Kevin Tran, one of nine brothers who own three Vietnamese markets in Northern Virginia, including Phuoc Hoa Market II on Patrick Henry Drive in Falls Church, where Tran holds forth at the cash register. "But if you're going to make pho for a bunch of friends, you're better off making it at home. Plus, if you make it at home, you know exactly what's in it."
By that, Tran means whether it has monosodium glutamate, or MSG, an ingredient that can trigger unpleasant reactions among some diners yet is widely used in Vietnamese cuisine, as it is in China. It is a flavor enhancer and it is said that no Vietnamese soup -- including pho -- can be made without MSG, whether in a restaurant or at home (see "Traditional Components," Page 6). In northern Vietnam, for instance, pho often is served with a small bowl of MSG, so that the diner can dip in and season the soup to taste. But more beef bones in the pho broth reduces the need for MSG. Thus, pho cooks are obsessed with beef bones, or, as grocer Jimmy Tran put it: "More bones, more flavor."
On this issue, some chefs and food merchants are sensitive but forthcoming. "Anyone who tells you they are making Vietnamese soups without MSG is not telling you the truth," says Than Nguyen, owner of Pho Tay Ho on Leesburg Pike in Baileys Crossroads. Yet, none of the cookbooks I had consulted about pho even mentioned MSG.
Le Thiep, who helped start the pho fashion in Washington when he founded a chain of restaurants called Pho 75 in the 1980s, remembers pho as the anywhere, anytime food of his youth in Vietnam. "Back home, before the war, I ate pho for breakfast, pho for dinner, pho for lunch, for snacks, for hangover," Thiep says.
Thiep practically implores me to focus not on beef pho -- or pho bo -- but on a version of pho made with chicken, called pho ga. Beef pho, Thiep insists, will only smell up my kitchen and take too much of my time. Plus, a proper beef pho, he says, should be made on a powerful commercial stove.
"Chicken pho is so easy," he says, especially suited for health-conscious Americans (see recipe, Page 6).
As I pressed my pursuit of an authentic pho recipe, I found an ally in Jimmy Tran, who presides over the Saigon Supermarket on Wilson Boulevard in Eden Center. Tran started out in the food business as a dishwasher and prep cook in Chinese restaurants after arriving here in 1978. In the '80s and '90s, he operated the Chun Sun Carry Out on Columbia Road NW in Adams Morgan. His current store is framed with funky plastic orange and fig trees by way of decor, and there's just room enough to squeeze through the front door past the open fruit cases of spiky durian, yellow pomelos and jumbo oranges.
At Tran's store, I found beef bones and some other ingredients I needed. But I had trouble locating others, such as Chinese rock sugar. Tran volunteered to be my guide. "You'll need this, Thai basil," he said, as he led me around, "and cilantro. Here's bean sprouts." Back in the meat section, he showed me packages of frozen beef tendon, as well as pre-sliced top round and a choice of meatballs made for pho. He also introduced me to a prepackaged pho spice mix -- a plastic bag containing whole star anise, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, peppercorns -- as well as the type of large tea ball infuser he uses to steep the spices in his homemade broth.
Months later, when I finally brought Tran a sample of my own pho (see recipe, Page 6), he lifted the top off the container and sniffed at the contents for a long time, closing his eyes as he inhaled and falling into a trance-like state. He screwed his face into a question mark, scratched his beard and declared, "Maybe too much star anise."
It wasn't until I spent an afternoon with restaurant owner Nguyen that I felt I had fully absorbed the lessons of home-cooked pho. Nguyen was an archivist for the Airline Pilots Association for 20 years after fleeing Vietnam. But "I was always dreaming of having my own business," she says, and she finally found a partner to help her start her own restaurant.
When I visited her at her home near the restaurant, she was boiling 10 pounds of bones along with slabs of beef brisket and eye of round in a tall pot. Later, after removing the bones and meat, she would season the broth with star anise, cinnamon, rock sugar, salt, fish sauce and MSG. She makes the same broth on a commercial scale at her restaurant every day.
"I like it with the brisket, for the flavor," Nguyen says. "But the broth has to be clear and the vegetables and herbs fresh. That's what makes the flavors come out."
For me, the soup was everything a pho should be: a deep but subtle flavor of beef against a background of onion and ginger. The spices made it mildly fragrant, while the salt, fish sauce and sugar gave the broth a solid underpinning of seasoning. No one flavor overwhelmed the other.
For me, it was a revelation, and I knew instantly what my own pho needed most: more bones.
Ed Bruske last wrote for Food about winter greens.