How to Make Great Pho, not Good Pho

My entire family has been preparing and perfecting pho our entire lives.

We have enjoyed some of the best pho from restaurants in Vietnam, Little Saigon in Westminster, CA and in the kitchen of friends and family.

This is how you differentiate great pho from good pho.

THE BOWL

Noodle soups are an art. Don’t let their humble appearances fool you. Chefs from around the world have been recognized by the Michelin guide for a modest bowl of noodle soup. Everything matters to the experience, down to the vessel in which it is served.

A great bowl of pho starts with a heavy, ceramic bowl. Deep enough to allow a generous amount of broth to be ladled in. Wide enough so as you bring your face in to slurp up mouthfuls of noodles, the aromatic broth greets you warmly.

Ceramic is the best choice to retain the heat of the broth. When it comes to noodle soups, the hotter the broth, the better.

If you’re serious about pho, your choice of bowl will show it. I don’t eat or serve my pho any other way. You shouldn’t either.

THE NOODLES

Be aware, in Vietnam when you order pho, you’ll get two contrasting bowls in the North and the South.

Most people experience the Southern preparation of pho for the first time when they order it in a restaurant.

One of the main differences between the two? The noodles.

I enjoy the small, fresh, thin version of noodles. Those hailing from the north will prefer the fresh wide rice noodles.

As with many heirloom dishes that have regional variations passed from one generation to the next, I was raised on the thin, small noodles. There’s no turning back for me.

With the noodles, you’ll want to be able to identify each individual strand in your bowl as you swirl your chopsticks around. An experienced chef will know that you have mere seconds from the time the noodles are dunked in boiling water to to completing your bowl of pho to serving it piping hot to your guest.

A second too long and the noodles clump together forcing the diner to untangle them like a handful of headphones straight from your pocket.

The perfect noodles should be toothsome. Not quite al dente like a pasta or chewy like ramen noodles or Chinese egg noodles.

No matter what, there’s no excuse for them to be soft and mushy. That’s just carelessness. If you’re served a bowl with a mass of bland, messy noodles—send it back. You don’t hate yourself that much.

THE MEAT

My perfect bowl is full of beef. Celebratory of the nose to tail cooking philosophy demonstrated in this dish.

Look over the menu. Does it offer a selection of beef similar to the selection found at a butcher’s counter? The more choices they offer you, the better.

It’s a sign of a great broth when it is made with generous chunks and slabs of beef. Doing so lends a rich, umami flavor to the broth.

I judge a great bowl of pho on three meats: rare beef, brisket and tripe.

If I’m making my own bowl, I’ll swathe my bowls with layers of thinly sliced ribeye at home—I prefer the tenderness and richness they retain once they meet the hot broth. Fat is flavor folks.

Beef round isn’t juicy enough for me and most restaurants serve it overcooked.

The secret most aficionados know is to order the rare beef on the side. A tricky way to enjoy it if you don’t get the timing just right. Miss the window of opportunity and the broth won’t cook your slices of raw beef to a perfect medium rare.

Now I understand rib eye is not traditionally found in pho and it does take away from the humble beginnings of this dish. These days, if I’m going to invest the time coaxing a pho for dinner out of my busy schedule, I’m going to spoil myself.

Filet mignon is where I draw the line. Filet mignon pho is all the rage. I’m not looking for any lean cuts of beef here. Boiled filet mignon is not my ideal way to enjoy that pricey cut of beef. I’ll save that for a slow-roasted preparation some other day.

The point is, rare slices of beef is a common sight in bowls of pho restaurants everywhere. The best bowls will acknowledge the fast cooking nature of these thin slices of beef and ensure it arrives to your table still pink all the way through. Any other way, and it’s just dry and hardly enjoyable.

Fatty pieces of brisket, referred to as gau, is another one of my choices. I’ll take brisket in any form, but if there are fatty slices available. I’m fighting for those.

Braised just long enough to give way tenderly underneath your teeth. It shouldn’t fall apart when you pick it up with your chopsticks. A sign of a restaurant that doesn’t respectfully prepare each varied cut of the cow.

Knife shredded slices of book tripe are also how I judge a great bowl from a good one.

Tripe should smell clean and be neutral in taste. Ideally, cut so thin that as you mix it into your bowl the long strands disguises itself against the noodles.

My Dad taught me to enjoy the pleasing texture of tripe in my bowl. Crunchy and a stark contrast to the soft textures of everything else found in pho. The oddly satisfying sensation as the raised texture brushes against your taste buds is unlike anything you’ve tasted. Don’t let yourself miss out on the opportunity to try it. You may get hooked.

What about tendon?

Tendon, although popular for many, isn’t apart of my bowl. The slippery sensation of tendon doesn’t appeal to me much when it comes to pho.

I love pho for the variety. I’ll gladly accept tendon in Bo Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew). Instead, I’d rather save what tolerance I have left for richness at this point for a glob of bone marrow extracted from the bones used to make my pho.

Bone marrow is not a treat you’ll find in every pho restaurant unless you know the owner personally like my Dad often did. That’s assuming where you’re at splurges for costlier marrow bones in their preparation. If you’re lucky, try ordering it off the menu. You’ll be richly rewarded.

The treat of a buttery mouthful of marrow is often reason enough for me to pull out my biggest stock pot and prepare my own.

From there, just about any cut of beef you enjoy is a perfect choice for your bowl. Beef meatballs, flank, oxtail—go ahead. It’s the beauty of pho. Every bowl is slightly different from the last in your hands.

THE GARNISHES

The heavy amount of herbs that accompany a bowl of pho is trademark of a Southern preparation.

The freshness of something green in an otherwise monochromatic bowl of brown is a welcomed divergence.

The first thing I look at is the onions, scallions and cilantro that usually come served in the broth.

I check to make sure the onions are thinly sliced so when the hot broth is ladled over, it lightly blanches it. Diffusing just enough of the sulfurous taste to give way to the inherent sweetness that we love about about caramelized onions.

Generous amounts of scallions and cilantro should be apparent. Not too finely chopped or sliced. You should be forced to chew them between your teeth. Vegetables are scarce among this dish. Besides, I enjoy the balance and relief my conscious feels when I look down and see something green looking back at me.

It’s the very same reason I enjoy large, torn pieces of Thai basil, saw-tooth herb and handfuls of crunchy and cool bean sprouts. These items accompany every bowl of pho on a side dish for you to pick and choose.

The same way my mom and grandmother garnished their bowls as if building a salad on top of their pho is how I do it. Knowing full well that underneath that innocuous mound of herbs is a bowl heavy with noodles and lots of fatty, tender beef.

I’ll see many people aggressively squeezing wedges of lime into their broth like a margarita is in the works. I prefer just enough to break through the heavy, savory broth. A hint of acid without making it too tangy.

A moderate amount of fresh, coarsely ground black pepper takes it over the top. If you can’t get peppercorns cracked tableside, the pre-ground stuff isn’t any cause for alarm.

Now here’s where it’s going to get controversial.

I keep the sriracha and hoisin sauce out of my bowl.

I’m a purist enjoying the patience and perfection of a carefully crafted broth. Other pho chefs will happily push you these condiments, hoping you don’t notice the flaws, shortcuts and quality of their preparation.

Instead, I’ll squeeze equal parts in small sauce dish, side by side. Never quite mixing the two. Allowing me to pick and choose when I want spiciness of sriracha or the sweetness of the hoisin. Sometimes I like a little bit of both as I dip my pieces of beef or smear a dab over my noodles before I take my next bite.

A good rule of thumb is taste your broth before you decide to add these condiments. Your experience may be better off without it.

Every once in awhile, fresh jalapenos will find their way into my broth. Not often as I hate for any overwhelming spiciness to distract me from an otherwise perfect bowl of pho. Because the flavor of jalapenos can vary from mild to hot, I don’t like to risk the off-chance I get a batch that’s too spicy for me.

If I am on the third or fourth helping of home made pho over the course of a week, I’ll change it up and throw a few slices in there and pull it out after a few seconds in the hot broth. This allows the fresh bite of a bright green jalapeno to take over the entire bowl and make it a whole new dish.

THE BROTH

The broth is arguable the most important part of pho.

It is the vehicle in which the assorted mix of beef, noodles and vegetables come together to make the perfect bite.

When your bowl first arrives the broth should be clear with globs of yellow fat floating on the top. I prefer my broth on the richer side so that as your noodles break the surface, the fat coats the strands of noodles aiding in the friction-less slurping that allows for instant gratification.

If your broth appears to lean, ask for a side of hanh beo or nuoc beo hanh tran

What you’ll get is a small bowl filled with the bottom half of scallions floating in rendered beef fat.

Don’t be shy. This is the good stuff right here.

Go ahead. Spoon some in and unlock the secret some of us have known our whole lives.

A sip of the broth should reveal a balance of the strong spices that make up the flavors of pho: star anise, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and onions.

Once you get past the piquant first sip, you should taste rich beefy flavors that are only possible from a broth made with pounds and pounds of various chunks and cuts of beef.

All great broths will use deeply roasted onions and rock sugar to balance the pungent funk of salty fish sauce.

You’re looking for a full body experience here. The smell of the spices should tease you. The boiling broth should warm you with every taste. The flavor and fat should linger in your mouth. You’re tasting for balance here. No broth should make obvious of one flavor over the other.

The best broths display a harmony only capable in the hands of a masterful pho chef.

This is the sign of a great bowl of pho.

Every chef has their own secret or proprietary addition that makes their bowl of pho unique. Like all great dishes before it, arguments will ensue almost any time you ask someone where the best bowl of pho can be found.

My Mom makes the best.

I make the best.

My family does.

I know the best restaurant.

No, this place is better.

That’s what makes pho such an incredible dish.

If you know what you’re tasting for; what makes up a great bowl of pho, you’ll weed out a mediocre bowl of pho fairly quickly. Similarly, you will also come to appreciate the skill of a well-honed one.

The best bowls will have you eager to reunite with the experience the second you finish the very last sip.

The details are what separate a great bowl of pho from a good one.

Nathaniel Nguyen
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