Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a popular soup that originated in North Vietnam sometime in the late 19th century. There seems to be some disagreement about whether the development of pho was influenced more by the French or the Chinese, and it was probably a little bit of both. The French brought a new appreciation of beef to Vietnam, but the soup also has noodles and spices that are shared with the Chinese.
Pho starts with a rich and complex beef broth, flavored with star anise, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and garlic. There are non-beef varieties of pho, but by far the most common is beef, or Pho Bo. The broth is complicated and contains many ingredients, and it takes so long to make that most home cooks don’t bother, especially when they can easily purchase it from their favorite restaurant or street vendor. Many Vietnamese restaurants here in the U.S. are named after the soup, including a restaurant in Raleigh that I visited yesterday called Pho Cali House of Noodles. My pastor Duane was brave enough to join me at the restaurant to try something new.
I have eaten pho previously in restaurants and even attempted to make it once or twice at home. However, this was my first pho experience this month during my “Savor the World” tour. When I have attempted the broth at home I started with a canned beef broth or stock, which automatically makes an inferior product compared to a proper beef stock made by stewing beef bones, marrow and oxtail. The broth at Pho Cali was delicious, one of the best I’ve had, with a rich beefy flavor and a nicely-balanced mix of spices. Pho rice noodles are thin, but slightly flattened, similar to linguine. The broth is not at all spicy-hot on it’s own, but is provided with jalapeno slices and chili sauce on the side. Some bean sprouts and herbs are also provided as a garnish, and a squeeze of lime adds a balance of sourness.
This restaurant offers about 15 options for beef pho alone, so that you can choose your favorite combination of beef cuts. Being a squeamish American, I avoided the tripe and tendon and ordered my pho with shank (of course!), flank and brisket meat. There were three sizes available as you can see on the menu above – Duane and I both ordered the small bowl, which was quite a generous lunch portion. The manager pointed out a “regular” large bowl that another customer was eating, which looked huge. I didn’t see the extra-large bowl, but as you can see on the menu the Vietnamese name translates to “train size”!
I’ll definitely be going back to Pho Cali when the pho craving hits again. With the cooler fall weather upon us (at least it *should* be upon us after the final heat wave we’re having in Raleigh this week), there are few dishes more satisfying than slurping down a nice warm bowl of pho.