Search This Blog

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Pho Experience

The Pho Experience

I’m fortunate to have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, a uniquely rare melting pot of people, culture, and cuisines. Living here affords the opportunity to experience some of the world’s best food and meet some extremely interesting people. About 15 years ago, while working for a large high-tech company here in the Silicon Valley, my friend Hai Nguyen suggested we go out for pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that’s a staple of these wonderful people’s’ diet. This was my first introduction to what has become virtually my favorite lunch food, and something that I must have at least once a week, or I get very cranky.

Vietnamese 101:
Pho is pronounced “fuh.” If you order a bowl of “foe” they’ll know you don’t know what you’re talking about. Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese name. The simple pronunciation is “win.” Don’t mangle it. My friend Hai Nguyen told me “just say win.”


This is the noodle house where I experienced my very first bowl of the wonderful Vietnamese street food, pho bo. It’s in Sunnyvale, CA in a little strip mall at El Camino and Mary Avenue. If you’re in the area, try it. Very nice people, excellent soups and spring rolls.


Pho restaurants are everywhere in the south bay area (Silicon Valley, San Jose, lower Peninsula area). In some parts of San Jose, and in certain areas that have a high Vietnamese population, they’re literally on every corner and in every little strip mall. Some are better than others, with small subtleties in the way the broth is made, the spices that are used, the garnishes are presented, and the quality of the meats used. But they’re all very similar, and it’s tough to get a bad bowl of pho in the south bay.

There are several “universals” at pho restaurants. First, they’re always served in two sizes, regular and large. Pho is always served with a plate of garnishes, Fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeno peppers, and either a lemon or lime. The way you use these in your soup is up to you, but I was taught (by my Vietnamese friend) that you break off the leaves of the basil, add as many bean sprouts as you want, spice it up with jalapenos to your personal taste (I use ALL of them) squeeze the lime/lemon on top, and add a little Sriracha hot pepper sauce, which is always on the table at any Vietnamese restaurant. 


Use chopsticks and the Chinese soup spoon with your pho. Don’t use a fork, it just ain’t cricket. And “slurping” your noodles is perfectly acceptable. Some people pick the noodles up onto the spoon, most Vietnamese simply pick up a bunch of noodles with the chopsticks and chew off what they want. This is legal with this food.


When you’re finished and ready to pay your bill, don’t expect the server to bring you a check. Vietnamese restaurants almost always expect you to note your table number and go up to the counter and tell them the number when it’s time to pay. It’s just the way it works.

Prices for a bowl of pho are generally in the five-to-seven-dollar range, meaning for a maximum of seven bucks, you get a huge bowl of healthy low-calorie flavor, that will totally fill you up (and I’m a big guy). Add a Vietnamese iced coffee for a special treat. This is a remnant of the French Indochina era, and a good one. Occasionally I’ll add a spring roll, which they usually serve Thai style with peanut dipping sauce, but I have to be very hungry to do this. The soup’s usually plenty. Two bowls of soup, an order of spring rolls and two beverages will run you a whopping twenty bucks at the restaurant above. My recommendation for novices is to try the “pho tai,” which is beef noodle soup with rare thin slices of beef. It’s essentially the recipe that follows, below. Tai Chin is also good, with both thin slices of beef and thicker slices of brisket. I’d recommend you don’t get into the exotic tendon, tripe, etc., until you know you’re going to like it.

Loyal readers know that we used to live in Bend, OR and in fact still own a beautiful house up there. Among the things we totally missed from the Bay Area was the proximity of so many great Vietnamese restaurants, as well as many other ethnic foods that we took for granted.


Bend is a stunningly beautiful town in the middle of Oregon. The Sisters Mountains, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Jefferson, and Smith Rock are some of the most gorgeous sights in the state. The meandering Deschutes, which was literally across the street from our house, and the surrounding trees and terrain, provide some incredible sights, including great blue herons flying just above the water, osprey swooping down to pick up a snack for the youngins’ that are waiting in the big nest high up in an abandoned tree, salmon, steelhead, and several varieties of trout making their annual journey to and from the upper Cascade Lakes and the Columbia Gorge, and The occasional group of deer during early morning and twilight hours, scouting for food. 


There are some wonderful restaurants in Bend. The Jackalope Grill is world class. Baltazar’s Mexican Restaurant is one of the best anywhere. They specialize in regional seafood-oriented creations, and they’re excellent. The Blacksmith, Greg’s Grill, and my favorite, the Tumalo Feed Company, are all great steak houses. Tumalo’s awesome; great food and sides, and any place that serves martinis in a Mason Jar can’t miss, in my humble opinion. Bronco Billy’s in nearby Sisters is always a fun spot, and one that we take all our visiting friends to. Soba noodles are a good lunch indulgence, but nothing close to a good bowl of pho. Mirenda’s is always good, La Rosa’s is the best Mexican food, and Longboard Louie’s makes a phenomenal burrito. 


But true, good ethnic foods are somewhere between rare and non-existent. Two very good Thai restaurants are the exception. The single Indian restaurant ranges from ok, to not. There’s absolutely zero good Chinese food. High style French food is impossible. Italian food of any kind is now gone completely, with the closing of Ernesto’s, which had been a Bend mainstay for decades. This means that you quite literally can’t go anywhere in town and get a decent plate of spaghetti and meatballs. We’re not talking upscale risotto with truffle sauce, or some exotic preparation with an expertly reduced demi-glace, just basic pasta. Gone. 


And you’ve undoubtedly gathered that you can’t get a bowl of pho in Bend. There’s one pho restaurant in Redmond, which is the county seat and about a 20-minute drive north …provided it’s not during the six months of snow and ice that makes you think twice about trekking anywhere on Highway 97. 


Which brings me to the recipe below, which is essentially a combination of several authentic recipes I found over the years, lots of experimentation, and a major “corner-cutter” which is to use a much easier method of producing the beef broth than the traditional half-day boiling of 20 pounds of beef bones that usually goes into a traditional pho recipe. I’ve made this many times, it’s always good, it’s a major crowd-pleaser, and your guests who haven’t experienced pho will be instant converts to this wonderful Vietnamese soup. Plan the bulk of a day getting this together, even with the afore-mentioned broth shortcut. 


A note on ingredients:
Some of them are hard to find, particularly if you live in a suburban or country area.
– Star anise presented quite a search. When I finally located some in the health foods area of a local Fred Meyer, I almost lost my breath when I saw that they were $35.00 a pound. But the half dozen that you’ll need will likely run you about thirty-five cents. Mine did.

– Learn to char the onions and ginger. Use a carving fork and don’t be afraid to cook it directly over an open flame burner. Be careful, but that’s how it’s done. 

– Fish sauce is a Vietnamese staple and is readily available in most supermarkets’ Oriental foods section. 

 Find real Thai basil. The stuff you use in your pasta sauce is not the same beast. Thai basil is the only thing to use in Vietnamese cooking and as a garnish for your treasured bowl of pho.

Pho Bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup)


For the broth:

32 oz. container of Swanson’s low salt beef broth

2 tablespoons of beef broth concentrate (Better Than Bouillon brand)

2 medium yellow onions

3–4-inch piece of fresh ginger

5 star anise 

6 whole cloves

1 whole cinnamon stick

1 ½ tablespoons of salt

4 tablespoons of fish sauce (Oriental section of your grocery store)

1 medium white onion, sliced wafer thin, soaked in cold water 30 minutes before serving soup


For the bowls:

16-ounce package of banh pho noodles (rice sticks, pick the width you like)

½ lb of raw eye of round, sirloin, or London broil, sliced as thin as possible (partially freeze it, then slice thin across the grain)

3-4 scallions (white and most of the green parts), cut into small rounds

Small bunch of cilantro, chopped

Black pepper



Thin sliced jalapenos (leave the seeds in)

Bean sprouts


Thai basil (tough to find – try Newport or Whole Foods)

Sriracha red pepper sauce


Prepare the broth:

  1. Cut the ends off the 2 onions, char the onions and ginger over an open burner. I used a long carving fork and rotated them around for about a minute each. Let these cool in a bowl.
  2. In a stockpot, add the beef broth, 6 quarts of hot water, 2 tablespoons of beef broth concentrate, cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves, salt, fish sauce. 
  3. Peel the onions and ginger, rough cut them into chunks, add them to the broth. 
  4. Bring to a full boil over high heat, lower to a simmer.  Simmer for 3 hours, uncovered, on low heat, stirring occasionally. 
  5. After 3 hours of simmering, pour the broth through a strainer or colander (a chinoise strainer, if you have one) into another pot, discard the non-broth ingredients.  
  6. Return the broth to the stove, drain and add the white onions that have been soaking, and continue to simmer while you prepare the bowls.


Prepare the noodles:

  1. Soak the noodles in warm water for 30 minutes
  2. Bring a pot of water to a boil
  3. Blanch the noodles for a couple minutes, drain



  1. Broth should be at a rolling boil
  2. Fill about 1/3 of the bowl with noodles
  3. Top with a few slices of beef, scallions, cilantro, and some black pepper
  4. Ladle on some more broth to cover the other ingredients
  5. Provide garnishes of Thai basil, sliced jalapenos, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and Sriracha (red pepper) sauce



No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.