Phi Nguyen doesn't long for the nights she spent alone in Pho Viet's cramped kitchen pleading with a pot of beef broth. "I would stay until 2 a.m. saying, 'Please, bone, please cook faster,' " remembers Nguyen, who opened the Vietnamese restaurant in Columbia Heights with her husband, Minh Chau, in 2009.
After the owner of a California pho shop suggested Nguyen add oxtail bones, the cooking time shrank from six hours to three. Then, peeking into the dining room, she watched as customers sprinkled salt onto the liquid. She responded by kicking up the sodium, perfecting the recipe little by little until guests no longer reached for the shaker, and she achieved the taste she wanted.
And what a taste it is.
The pure, near-translucent broth is so packed with aromatics it nearly levitates. It's made with ginger, onion, a special 11-spice blend imported from Vietnam, oxtail and as much brisket and flank steak as can fit in the pot. She treats the piping-hot liquid as a blank canvas, layering it with noodles, bean shoots, Thai basil and different cuts of beef such as springy meatballs and razor-thin, raw cuts of eye-of-round steak that cook as they're dunked in the steamy liquid.
When I asked Nguyen about the type of noodles she uses, I was prepared to hear all the ways in which they're special and the great lengths she went to find them. Instead, she tells me, "They're just noodles. They're the same ones all the other shops use."
That's because they're meant to support, not outshine, the real star: the broth.
The resulting combination makes for the best bowl of pho in town. Nearby, Pho 14 and Vietnamese Chelsea Restaurant put up a good fight, but neither can compare with the depth of Nguyen's salty, yet not abrasive, broth.
It's clear that guests are all too happy to cram into the 35-seat dining room for a sip of Nguyen's pho. The zero-frills dining room, sparsely decorated with a few hanging plants and a bright, beaded curtain disguising the bathroom, is usually packed. Expect to wait for a seat.
The spicy lemon grass pho makes the wait worth it. It's the highlight of the menu, drawing visitors from far and wide, its popularity evident from the cacophony of diners blowing their noses. To make the sinus-clearing soup, Nguyen creates a thick paste of minced lemon grass, ginger, garlic, chile powder, shrimp paste and annatto seeds, which lend the soup a reddish hue and subtle smokiness. She adds it to the bottom of the bowl and pours the broth on top.
The first sip assaulted the back of my throat and left me coughing. I tried to dodge the beads of chile oil before finally succumbing to the heat. (Note to self: Next time, order medium instead of full spice.)
Nguyen says she learned to cook from her maternal grandmother, who died recently at age 95. Growing up in the southern Vietnam city of Soc Trang, she saw her grandmother as the go-to cook for weddings, funerals and special occasions in the community. "She was a chef, but we didn't use that word at the time," Nguyen says.
After immigrating to the United States in 1994, when she was 20, Nguyen attended the University of the District of Columbia, where she met Chau while holding an elevator for him. Neither had restaurant experience before opening Pho Viet.
You could have fooled me. Chau, who runs the front of the house while Nguyen oversees the kitchen, is often so busy keeping the operation afloat that he seldom looks up from his post behind the counter. He remains attentive: During a recent visit, a worker arrived with a bag of leafy lemons still on their stems, and Chau — without making eye contact — directed him to the back with a flick of his head.
Beyond pho, the kitchen churns out a variety of classic Vietnamese dishes such as vermicelli noodle bowls and rice plates, but the results are mixed. The boiling catfish hot pot is lackluster and gummy. The shredded pork rice plate is so dry that my glass of water feels miles away.
The egg rolls — stuffed with chicken, shrimp, carrots, vermicelli noodles and taro root — are redeeming as easily the best appetizer on the menu. Nguyen deep-fries them whole and cuts them in half mid-fry with a pair of scissors. The oil seeps through the filling and creates a crispy seal.
Along with her mother, Nguyen is opening a second restaurant in the area early next year, focusing on bun rieu, a vermicelli soup popular throughout southern Vietnam. The restaurant is an homage to the region where Nguyen's love of cooking was born — and the woman who taught her about food.
"This one's for my grandma," Nguyen says.
This loyal fan can barely wait.
3513 14th St. NW. 202-629-2839.
Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a .4-mile walk to the restaurant.