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Cover Story February 1st, 2007

  Untitled Document

cover

by lyle e davis

What we propose to do with this cover story is just what the title implies.

We’re gonna have some fun and show you where the action is. In the process, we’re gonna do some teachin’ . . . so prepare to learn . . . to enjoy . . . and most of all, to have some fun!

We’ll even suggest where to go, what to pay, and we’ll outline our favorites.

A new phenomenon has cropped up throughout the nation . . . it’s the introduction of a Vietnamese noodle soup called Pho’. You pronounce it as “Fa” as in ‘do-re-mi-fa . .’ - at least that’s close enough. You ask any Vietnamese waiter for ‘Fa’ and he or she will know what you mean.

Pho’ is a soup of rice noodles and beef broth. You can also get it, however, with chicken, pork . . . well, just hang on. We’ll explain it more as we go.

Pho’ is a simple, honest bowl of noodle soup, topped with a variety of meats and freshly chopped scallions. The broth is clear and fragrant with a subtle blend of star anise seed, fennel seed, cassia, beef stock, onion, fish sauce and wild pepper. A side of fresh basil, bean sprouts, chile pepper (usually Jalapeno) and lime accompanies every Pho’ order.

Prepping a bowl of Pho’ is something of a personal ritual that might go along this line: Taste the broth, then add bean sprouts, shred and add basil leaves, squeeze in a few drops of lime juice, add chile and bean paste (personal preference here), mix all ingredients thoroughly and enjoy.

First-timers might want to stick with the basic Pho’ which is topped with lean, thin slices of beef cooked as part of the broth.

Those who enjoy carpaccio might consider Pho’ Tai, where the noodles are topped with a layer of raw carved beef. The hot soup broth is then poured over the beef to scald it. Other meat choices are fatty flank, tripe, tendon and beef balls. Souping up savory and authentic noodles in any weather, usually in a comfortable neighborhood destination, is ideal for couples aiming to dine on $10 and change.

How to Eat Pho’

Garnishing Pho’ is like putting together your own hamburger -you can have it your way. So, before putting any Pho’ into your mouth, add your own finishing touches. Then dive in with a two-handed approach: chopsticks in one hand to pick up the noodles, the soup spoon in the other to scoop up broth and other goodies.

Your Pho’ ritual may include:

Bean sprouts: Add them raw for crunch or blanch them first.

Chiles: Dip and wiggle thin slices of hot chile in the hot broth to release the oil. Leave them in if you dare. (If you like hot spices. I don’t). For best fragrance and taste, try Southeast Asian chiles such as Thai bird or dragon rather than jalapeños. Serranos are better than jalapeños.

Herbs: Strip fresh herb leaves from their stems, tear up the leaves and drop them into your bowl. Available at Viet markets, pricey ngo gai (cilantro, thorny cilantro, saw-leaf herb) imparts heady cilantro notes. The ubiquitous purple-stemmed Asian/Thai basil (hung que) contributes sweet anise-like flavors. Spearmint (hung lui), adds zip.

Lime: A squeeze of lime gives the broth a tart edge, especially nice if the broth is too sweet or bland.

Sauces: Many people squirt hoisin (tuong) or Sriracha hot sauce directly into the bowl.

Where to Find Pho’

We’ll start with one of our favorites; an outstanding Escondido Restaurant:
Pho’ Hong Cali, at 330 W. Felicita Avenue, C-7-C-9, Escondido. Call: 489-8688.

We fell in love with this place. Clean, neat, comfortable booths and tables. The owner/chef, Ryan, will come to your table and discuss the menu, making suggestions. He seems to know the American palate and senses what we will, and even what we will probably not, like.

I ordered the Pho’ Tai . . which is rare steak over noodles. Evelyn ordered a combination (at Ryan’s suggestion) of Pho’ Ga and Pho Chay, which is both chicken and vegetables. We thoroughly enjoyed both the presentation and the taste.

I sampled some of Evelyn’s and will order it next time. The vegetables were al dente’, beautifully colored and crunchy. (We liked this place so much we came back the next day for lunch). Cost of our meal? $10.00. Add in $2.00 for a tip and we were happy happy campers.

Next site? Vista!

Pho’ Lucky Vietnamese Special Rice and Beef Noodle Soup, 770 Sycamore Avenue, Suite E & F, Vista. Call 727-2738.

Pho’ Lucky is located in the corner of a strip mall shopping center on Sycamore Avenue, just a couple blocks south of the Highway 78 Sycamore off-ramp.

This is another Pho’ restaurant that we immediately put on our “must return” list. Lucky Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup Restaurant is just a nice place to be. Decor, furnishings, and warmth of greeting all combined to make for a pleasant experience. Secondly, we noticed the menus were written in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese . . . with recommendations on what type of Pho’ was available, what the names of each dish meant, and how we might wish to order, particularly if we were ‘first timers.’

Further, I again ordered a small bowl of Tai, which you’ll remember is Pho’ made with rare slices of beef. What I received was a generous bowl with a great deal of beef, a great deal of noodles . . . a lovely side dish of condiments (they had withdrawn the Jalapenos at my request). Far and away it was the most delicious and filling Pho’ I had enjoyed within the past week. It cost me $5.50 for the large bowl.

Evelyn ordered Com Ga Nuong (Steamed rice with BBQ Chicken). When it arrived the plate was huge. Generous servings of BBQ chicken, a large mound of steamed rice and a delicous cucumber salad, all for $6.75. We had to take a box home as she could not finish it all . . . it was that generous of a serving.

Most of the Pho’ restaurants also offer springrolls, eggrolls, and other rice dishes with meat and seafood as well . . . but that is grist for another story . . . today we focus on Pho’.

The third Pho’ restaurant at the top of our list? Back to Escondido:

Pho’ Saigon Express, is located at 605 N Broadway, Escondido. Call 746-4669.

Here again, we noticed the menus are in English, Vietnamese, Chinese and Spanish. Turns out the Latino trade loves Vietnamese food . . . much of which is, or can be made to be, spicey.

Pho’ is a more traditional southern Vietnamese noodle soup. The Pho’ at Saigon Pho’ Express has more of a sweet taste to it. Others are more of a salty taste. They use a lot of bones in preparing their soup stock and they cook it for a long time. Hours and hours.

Pho’ Saigon Express is a little more than a year old, having opened in November of 2005.

The service was prompt and friendly; the decor was very nice. It is located in a shopping center right at the intersection of Broadway and Washington.

We had first discovered Pho’ several weeks ago at the Pho’ San Marcos Vietnamese Restaurant at 700 S Rancho Santa Fe Rd, San Marcos. Call 599.1200 for information.

First thing we noticed is 99% of the diners were Vietnamese. That’s usually a pretty good sign. If the nationals go to the restaurant you can normally be pretty sure the food is going to be both authentic and tasty.

It was.

We ordered the Pho’ with chicken. It was served promptly and steaming hot. I asked what the leafy plant on the condiment plate was. I thought she said ‘pesto.’ I learned the next day (for we enjoyed it so much we went back two days in a row) that she was saying “basil.” (You will find some language difficulty on occasion at Vietnamese restaurants. Consider it as part of the adventure). The ‘basil,’ however, is a Vietnamese basil, green with a purplish tint . . . tastes a bit minty. Superb when mixed with Pho’ broth. Also on the condiment side dish were bean sprouts, cut limes, and cut jalepeno slices. I don’t care for jalapeno (or any hot, hot stuff) so left them alone. The bean sprouts, when mixed with the Pho’, add a crunchy mix to the broth. Or, if you leave them to steep for a while . . . they simply add a bit more bulk, though not then quite as crunchy. There are also bottles at the table with Hoisin Sauce, Soy Sauce, often Fish Sauce (the ngoc nam many military men from the Vietnam era will recall). They also have the fiery hot sauces and chili sauces and/or pastes for those of you who have asbestos tongues and tummies.

It is a rather plain looking restaurant, generally crowded, in an out of the way location in a small strip shopping center on the northwest corner of Rancho Santa Fe and Palomar Airport Road (aka San Marcos Boulevard extension). Great food, fast and friendly service, no frills.

About a year ago we had eaten at the other San Marcos Pho’ house . . .Kim's Vietnamese Noodle House, 159 S Rancho Santa Fe Rd, San Marcos. Call -599-1200 or 471-2572

Knowing we were going to do this cover story we wanted to wander back, re-sample their menu so we could report a current impression.

We changed our minds.

We put a lot of stock in the attitude of folks we do business with and the gent who greeted us, if that can describe the encounter, was anything but cordial. No smile, no warmth. He was just . . . there. I asked him if he was Kim . . . “No, my boss,” he answered rather gruffly.

The place is plastic, bare minimums in decor, tables, chairs, a rather sterile atmosphere.

I asked for a To Go Menu and was handed a single sheet of a menu that was not particularly well done to begin with and then, adding insult to injury, it was a photocopy. And a bad one.

The thought immediately cropped up in my mind: if they are this chintzy on their menu where else do they cut corners? On their food product?

We decided we did not need to dine at Kim’s Vietnamese Noodle House again in order to get a fair idea of their restaurant. We had eaten there about a year ago and it was, at best, okay.

We shall not be going back.

This past Friday we visited the Pho’ Hoacali Express, Vietnamese Restaurant, 16425 Bernardo Center Drive, (Rancho Bernardo), San Diego, Phone: 858.613.7777

The place was packed . . . ‘course that could have been because we arrived at high noon. There were a great many Asian folks there, presumably the bulk of them were Vietnamese though we visited with one Japanese family and several Caucasian customers.

We had only a short wait and were quickly ushered to our table, reviewed the menu and ordered. I had an extra large bowl of Dac Biet Xe Lua (Beef Noodle Soup), Evelyn had Banh Mi Bo Kho (Rice Noodles with Vietnamese Beef Stew). I received the condiment plate with the traditional Vietnamese basil, bean sprouts, cut limes and jalapeno peppers. I snarled at the jalapeno peppers and pushed them as far away from me as possible, then tore off the leaves of the basil, shredded them, put them into the soup broth together with the bean sprouts.

The Pho’ was excellent . . . however it had tripe in it. Tripe is not my favorite meat . . . I fished it out with my chopsticks and placed it on the tray to be taken away. (Tripe is the muscular lining of beef stomach. It is considered a delicacy in some quarters. Not in mine). I also discovered several pieces of fatty meat in the Pho’ . . . which I didn’t care for. On to the tray it went as well. (Chances are the fat was from the brisket (same basic cut of meat as corned beef). The Vietnamese like some fatty meat in the Pho’. I don’t. They say it makes it juicier. Perhaps. Evelyn’s dish had a lot of fat, which she quickly discarded). This place is crowded so plan your arrival accordingly. Both meals were quite good, the tripe and fatty meat notwithstanding.

While waiting in line at this popular Rancho Bernardo Pho’ Restaurant, we had a chance to visit with a number of Vietnamese customers. They smiled and shook their head and said . . . “is funny. In Vietnam, Pho’ is only served at breakfast. It is traditional breakfast food. Never eaten at lunch or supper. Here, everyone eats Pho’ anytime. Including we Vietnamese.’

Also, American bowls of Pho’ are about 30 percent bigger than what's found at a street-side joint in Vietnam. The American’s appetites are bigger than the small and wiry Vietnamese. American Pho’ restaurants regularly offer diners myriad options to personalize their bowls: raw beef, cooked beef (such as brisket, flap or outside flank), tendon, tripe and meatballs. This fanciful display is a reflection of America's wealth. That is, we have options here -- an uncommon luxury in Vietnam; in fact, if you're low on money in Vietnam you may order a less-expensive bowl without meat.

Prices at all the Pho’ restaurants were very reasonable. If you really want inexpensive Pho’ then you need to head over to Vietnam. There, it will cost you about 11,000 dong (about 60 cents American). But here in the good old US of A, expect to pay anywhere from $4.35 to around $6.75 for a very large bowl. Surprisingly, the prices don’t vary much . . . maybe a quarter to as much as a dollar a bowl . . . unless you go to a really fancy place that has high overhead . . . and I didn’t find any of those. Most Pho’ restaurants are fairly simple operations. Not a lot of glitz. Just lots of tables, chairs, quick service, quick, inexpensive and tasty food, and rapid turnover of tables. The customers move in, eat, visit, and leave.

What Makes Pho’ Universally Loved?

Sacramento restaurateur, chef and cookbook author Mai Pham points out that Vietnamese food offers an appealing flavor profile to the U.S. palate: "Most of the ingredients are very familiar. It's fresh and not so spicy. Visually it's easy to see. It's not mysterious.''

One of the more popular Pho’ servings is Dac Biet Xe Lua, a combination bowl with slices of rare steak, well-done brisket, flank, tendon and tripe. Individual tastes vary . . . I can do without the tripe and order it that way. I don't care for the tripe or fatty meats - but give me some thinly sliced beef, chicken, or seafood, and I am lovin' it.

You can also order Pho’ Tom, which is rice noodles with seafood.

Why has Pho’ become so well embraced and accepted in North San Diego County?

Perhaps it's because Vietnamese emigrants decided to settle all over the United States, and wherever they are, there's sure to be Pho’. The heady broth, chewy rice noodles, sweet spices and scintillating herbs provide comfort in a bowl.

Long confined to Vietnam and immigrant communities, Pho’ is becoming the most popular Asian noodle soup in the United States.

Pho’ has changed much during its nearly 100-year history. At its birth, Pho’ was basically just boiled beef, noodles and broth. Inventive cooks then developed the raw beef version (Pho’ bo tai) and chicken Pho’ (Pho’ ga), and during wartime when beef was scarce, they made pork Pho’ (Pho’ lon). Though these and other variations exist, most people define Pho’ as a beefy affair.

How Pho’ came to be is a murky issue. While scholars, cooks and diners agree that Pho’ was invented in the early part of the 20th century in northern Vietnam, no one is certain of the specifics.

In gathering oral histories from elders, conclusions were that the noodle soup came from Hanoi and was influenced by both Chinese and French traditions.

As for the birthplace of Pho’, a couple of theories point to Nam Dinh province, southwest of Hanoi. One argument is that ingenious cooks in Nam Dinh City (once a major textile center) satisfied the gastronomic desires of Vietnamese and French residents by inventing the dish using local ingredients (e.g., rice noodles) and adding du boeuf for a bit of foreign extravagance. (Before the French occupation, cows in Vietnam were cherished work animals, not food sources.)

Another theory attempted to trace Pho’ to the small impoverished village of Van Cu in Nam Dinh province. During the 20th century, as a means of survival, nearly all Van Cu villagers turned to making and peddling Pho’ 50 miles away in Hanoi. Consequently, many Pho’ vendors in the capital today are from that village.

In 1954, under the Geneva Accords, Vietnam was split in two. To avoid communism, many northerners migrated southward bringing their Pho’ culture with them. In democratic South Vietnam, Pho’ made a brash turn away from its conservative northern traditions.

It was embellished with more of everything -- meat, noodles and broth. The practice of garnishing Pho’ with bean sprouts, ngo gai (thorny cilantro), hung que (Thai/Asian basil) and lime was introduced. Diners also started adding tuong (bean sauce/hoisin sauce) directly to their bowls. This freewheeling, adulterated incarnation reflected the southern Vietnamese penchant for eating wildly complicated food and lots of it.

Then, as now, northern Pho’ purists reacted with horror, decrying the loss of authenticity. Though philosophically liberating, tinkering with the sacred broth was an affront to strict northern cooks, whose pride and reputation rested in crafting a well-balanced bowl.

Even today, what many Americans identify as the requisite Pho’ garnish plate is hard to find in Hanoi. For purists only "Pho’ Bac'' (northern pho’’) will do.

Whether you enjoy your next bowl of Pho’ at home, in a restaurant or at a noodle bar, you'll be part of a special culinary and cultural transformation. Like many ethnic foods introduced to this country, part of Pho’ will forever remain rooted in Vietnam while its future unfolds at the American table.

Okay . . . so now you know what Pho’ is. You know how to eat it. You even know some of it’s history. You know where to go to get it and how much to pay for it. Now the only thing you need to know is:

Making Pho’ at Home

You say you’re sold on the idea of Pho’? You say you’ll go out and try some of the Pho’ Restaurants we’ve listed? But, that’s not enough, you say? What you really want to do is learn how to make Pho’ in your very own home?

Come here, my child. Sit yourself down and take notes. I shall teach you.

While it’s convenient and fun to eat Pho’ out, nothing beats a homemade bowl.

What makes the homemade version special is the love and care put into the broth -- the cornerstone of Pho’. Multidimensional in fragrance and flavor, homemade broth will beat out those prepared in restaurants any day.

1. Beef bones for Pho’. Start with good beef bones: Avoid neck bones. Look for knuckle bones and leg bones that contain marrow. At Asian markets, you'll find beef bones cut and bagged in the refrigerated section. Vietnamese markets will sometimes have the leg bones at the butcher counter. You can specify how you want them sawed; ask for two-to three-inch sections.

To find the bones, ask a butcher who breaks down large beef carcass sections into small retail cuts.

2. Aim for a clear broth: This is achieved by parboiling and rinsing the bones, which greatly reduces the amount of residue in the broth. You may think you're pouring essential flavors down the drain, but you're not. The bones exude their essence during the three-hour gentle simmer. Cooking at a low heat also helps produce clear broth.

3. Char the onion and ginger: It imparts a wonderful brown color and deepens the overall flavors.

4. Leave some fat: Despite all the talk about obesity in the United States, some shiny globules of fat floating in the broth lend a richness that underscores Pho’s beefiness.

5. Serve it hot: To cook the raw beef and warm the cooked beef and noodles, the broth must be boiling when it's ladled into the bowl. But hot Pho’ shouldn't be left to sit in the bowl. The noodles will absorb too much broth.

Ready? Begin!

Beef noodle soup (Pho’ bo)
Makes 8 satisfying (American-sized) bowls

pho dishPho’ broth cooking
For the broth:
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound total)
4-inch piece ginger (about 4 ounces)
5-6 pounds beef soup bones (marrow and knuckle bones)
5 star anise (40 star points total)
6 whole cloves
3-inch cinnamon stick
1 pound piece of beef chuck, rump, brisket or cross rib roast, cut into 2-by-4-inch pieces (weight after trimming)
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 ounce (1-inch chunk) yellow rock sugar.

For the bowls:
1 1/2-2 pounds small (1/8-inch wide) dried or fresh banh Pho’ noodles ("rice sticks'' or Thai chantaboon)
1/2 pound raw eye of round, sirloin, London broil or tri-tip steak, thinly sliced across the grain (1/16 inch thick; freeze for 15 minutes to make it easier to slice)
1 medium yellow onion, sliced paper-thin, left to soak for 30 minutes in a bowl of cold water
3 or 4 scallions, green part only, cut into thin rings
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
Ground black pepper

Optional garnishes arranged on a plate and placed at the table:
Sprigs of spearmint and Asian/Thai basil
Leaves of thorny cilantro
Bean sprouts (about 1/2 pound)
Red hot chiles (such as Thai bird or dragon), thinly sliced
Lime wedges

Prepare the broth:

Char onion and ginger. Use an open flame on grill or gas stove. Place onions and ginger on cooking grate and let skin burn. (If using stove, turn on exhaust fan and open a window.) After about 15 minutes, they will soften and become sweetly fragrant. Use tongs to occasionally rotate them and to grab and discard any flyaway onion skin. You do not have to blacken entire surface, just enough to slightly cook onion and ginger.

Let cool. Under warm water, remove charred onion skin; trim and discard blackened parts of root or stem ends. If ginger skin is puckered and blistered, smash ginger with flat side of knife to loosen flesh from skin. Otherwise, use sharp paring knife to remove skin, running ginger under warm water to wash off blackened bits. Set aside.

Parboil bones. Place bones in stockpot (minimum 12-quart capacity) and cover with cold water. Over high heat, bring to boil. Boil vigorously 2 to 3 minutes to allow impurities to be released. Dump bones and water into sink and rinse bones with warm water. Quickly scrub stockpot to remove any residue. Return bones to pot.

Simmer broth. Add 6 quarts water to pot, bring to boil over high heat, then lower flame to gently simmer. Use ladle to skim any scum that rises to surface. Add remaining broth ingredients and cook 1 1/2 hours. Boneless meat should be slightly chewy but not tough. When it is cooked to your liking, remove it and place in bowl of cold water for 10 minutes; this prevents the meat from drying up and turning dark as it cools. Drain the meat; cool, then refrigerate. Allow broth to continue cooking; in total, the broth should simmer 3 hours.

Strain broth through fine strainer. If desired, remove any bits of gelatinous tendon from bones to add to your Pho’ bowl. Store tendon with cooked beef. Discard solids.

Use ladle to skim as much fat from top of broth as you like. (Cool it and refrigerate it overnight to make this task easier; reheat before continuing.) Taste and adjust flavor with additional salt, fish sauce and yellow rock sugar. The broth should taste slightly too strong because the noodles and other ingredients are not salted. (If you've gone too far, add water to dilute.) Makes about 4 quarts.

Assemble bowls: The key is to be organized and have everything ready to go. Thinly slice cooked meat. For best results, make sure it's cold.

Heat broth and ready noodles. To ensure good timing, reheat broth over medium flame as you're assembling bowls. If you're using dried noodles, cover with hot tap water and soak 15-20 minutes, until softened and opaque white. Drain in colander. For fresh rice noodles, just untangle and briefly rinse in a colander with cold water.

Blanch noodles. Fill 3-or 4-quart saucepan with water and bring to boil. For each bowl, use long-handle strainer to blanch a portion of noodles. As soon as noodles have collapsed and lost their stiffness (10-20 seconds), pull strainer from water, letting water drain back into saucepan. Empty noodles into bowls. Noodles should occupy 1/4 to 1/3 of bowl; the latter is for noodle lovers, while the former is for those who prize broth. If desired, after blanching noodles, blanch bean sprouts for 30 seconds in same saucepan. They should slightly wilt but retain some crunch. Drain and add to the garnish plate.

Add other ingredients. Place slices of cooked meat, raw meat and tendon (if using) atop noodles. (If your cooked meat is not at room temperature, blanch slices for few seconds in hot water from above.) Garnish with onion, scallion and chopped cilantro. Finish with black pepper.

Ladle in broth and serve. Bring broth to rolling boil. Check seasoning. Ladle broth into each bowl, distributing hot liquid evenly so as to cook raw beef and warm other ingredients. Serve with garnish plate.
Yellow rock sugar (a.k.a. lump sugar) is sold in one-pound boxes at Chinese and Southeast Asian markets. Break up large chunks with hammer.

Variations: If you want to replicate the splendorous options available at Pho’ shops, head to the butcher counter at a Vietnamese or Chinese market. There you'll find white cords of gan (beef tendon) and thin pieces of nam (outside flank, not flank steak). While tendon requires no preparation prior to cooking, nam should be rolled and tied with string for easy handling. Simmer it and the beef tendon in the cooking broth for two hours, or until chewy-tender.

Airy book tripe (sach) is already cooked when you buy it. Before using, wash and gently squeeze it dry. Slice it thinly to make fringe-like pieces to be added to the bowl during assembly. For beef meatballs (bo vien), purchase them in Asian markets in the refrigerator case; they are already precooked. Slice each one in half and drop into broth to heat through. When you're ready to serve, ladle them out with the broth to top each bowl

Bon Apetit!

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