Pho From Home: Vietnam

In Pho From Home we seek out the variety of pho--authentic, Texified, good and bad--available in restaurants, starting in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and winding all the way around the Dallas area.

As a little Vietnamese kid in a primarily white world, I never thought these three letters would one day evoke such a craze in the West, particularly Dallas, Texas.

Don't get me wrong. Dallas/Fort Worth has the third highest population of Vietnamese people in the United States, right behind Orange County and Houston. However, the city of Dallas, itself, always seemed like a foreign country to me--void of any ethnic variety and flooded with one steak house after the other. In cities such as Houston, the question of where to get a consistently great bowl of pho generates a huge selection of options, while Dallas, well, not so much. One would have to drive all the way out to Garland, Haltom City, or Arlington to find a really decent bowl of pho. Another option would be to befriend a Vietnamese person and pray to god they take you home to mom.

Growing up in the suburbs, I remember being ridiculed for bringing my home made Vietnamese or Chinese leftovers to lunch. So to this day, whenever I mention I am part Vietnamese to a Dallasite, I'm shocked when ninety percent of the time, his/her eyes will widen into a state of manic desperation, pleading, "Where is the best pho place in Dallas?!"

The other ten percent of people will coolly declare, "(Fill in the blank) is the best little Vietnamese restaurant in Dallas. They have THE best pho."

In both scenarios, I am usually wary. Reason one: Unfortunately, there is no "eyes rolling to the back of your head" bowl of pho in Dallas proper. Reason two: I don't have the heart, (and stomach) to tell someone that what they think is awesome, actually, well, isn't necessarily awesome by Vietnamese standards. Besides, there is so much more cuisine to Vietnamese food beyond pho, but that's another entirely different article for another time.

Somewhere along the road, pho has become the ubiquitous symbol for Vietnamese gastronomy. The heavenly bowl of broth and rice noodles may only be the tip of the iceberg, but it's a start--and it's definitely a step in the right direction away from being teased in the cafeteria.

If Dallas is going to wholeheartedly embrace pho, it feels only appropriate to offer an introductory course, a Pho 101, if you will, to guide the Dallas palate towards noodle soup nirvana.

Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup, customarily made with beef broth, beef and rice noodles. A chicken version made with chicken broth, chicken meat, and rice noodles also exist. Seasoning and garnish vary, depending on geography--which brings us to lesson number one.

Many people believe that pho is universally the same all over Vietnam. It is not. It is like the American barbecue debate of which is better; Carolina, Kansas City, or Texas? The southern Vietnamese people, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), swear by theirs, a saltier and more robust version. While the northern Vietnamese people of Hanoi find the southern pho to be obnoxious and over seasoned--after all, the original bowl of pho is from the North, going through revision after revision while traveling southward.

This brings me to the time when I first visited Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, many years ago. My mother, being from the North, was so excited to take me to try my first bowl of what she deemed "real pho." I was starving, as usual. We arrived at the open air mom and pop restaurant with metal utilitarian tables and stools. There was only one aproned man standing at the cooking station in the front of the restaurant, straining rice noodles and ladling hot soup.

Having grown up eating southern Vietnamese pho, (my mom and her family had migrated to the southern city of Saigon when she was a teenager), I noticed that we were not offered any basil, cilantro, or bean sprouts. When the highly anticipated bowl of pho arrived, I was discouraged with the size of the portions. The bowl was child's meal size small, and the contents of the bowl were minimal: a fist sized portion of rice noodles topped with four slices of white chicken meat. Even more apparent, the broth was clear--I mean, like, transparent clear.

I took my first bite, and something was missing. Something called flavor. I couldn't taste anything.

Baffled, I looked across at my mom and spouted, "This isn't pho. This is like boiled water and noodles. What IS this?!"

She laughed, and replied, "This is pho."

My little brother, accustomed to the "Large" sized bowls from back home, had to order four more bowls to be satisfied.

As I've grown older, and as my palate has become somewhat more refined, I've learned to truly appreciate the purity of northern Vietnamese pho. Being not as salty and sweet as its southern counterpart, the flavor and aroma of the star anise, onion, and cassis, the main seasoning agents of pho, really are allowed to shine.

I still love my south Vietnamese pho, but because there is so much going on in a bowl of southern pho, its flavor profile has progressively become bastardized. This is not just a knock on Vietnamese restaurants in the United States--or Dallas, for that matter. The muddling of pho is even occurring from where I am presently sitting and writing this article: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, formerly known as Saigon.

Traveling here for work, I wanted to write back about all the great food I was going to eat in Vietnam. My editor, astutely pointing out Dallas's love affair with this "thing called pho," set me off on my odyssey.

Having lived in Vietnam for a few years after college, I can honestly say I was skeptical. Pho, you see, is the last thing I eat whenever I am here. Why eat something I can get in Plano, especially since it's all the same, nowadays?

Some time ago, I had a non-Vietnamese friend ask me, "Is it true that pho in Vietnam sucks?" My response to her at the time was an immediate, "Yes." Upon later reflection, my mind raced with different questions. First, who was telling her this, and why did I agree with them? Secondly, this is not the first time I've heard this from someone. For instance, my mother, who now lives in Vietnam, constantly voices her dissatisfaction with pho. Finally, what is good pho, anymore?

With a new, stronger resolve, I hope to set off and find good pho here in Vietnam. More importantly, I hope to rediscover my love for it so that I may share with my fellow Dallasites, through un-jaded eyes, where one can find a truly wonderful gem of a bowl of pho in Dallas.