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How Do You Pho?

Pho houses are popping up all over. But what is pho? And how do you eat it? The possibilities are endless.

Pho places are popping up all over town, and it seems this Vietnamese dish is the hot new thing. In our area alone, we have quite a few choices for pho. But what is it?

Is pho just soup? Not quite. People are quite passionate about their pho preferences.

First, let us get the proper pronunciation out of the way.

Here are a few common errors: fah, phah, foo, fow, or phoah. The official north Vietnamese pronunciation is not as simple as just one syllable. It is pronounced with a question mark.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, so to sound like a native, pronounce it like this: fuh-uh? Trust me.

Pho is technically a north Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Sometimes made with chicken, it has a clear but rich broth, and rice noodles, and veggies, it has become a cult classic of sorts. And pho has a southern version too, called Hu Tieu. This is different from true pho, having different noodles and meats.

What’s so great about it?

True pho has an outstanding broth, beef bones boiled for hours to produce a mild, yet wonderfully flavorful base. There is nothing worse than grainy, salty mix from a pouch, chemically colored and harsh.

Homemade broth is a bit of an art. I make chicken broth from leftovers to use for other recipes like Spanish rice, but to make a great stock for a soup, that takes some skill.

When done well, good pho has a mild yet rich broth, never greasy or cloudy, and very hot.

Often, there is a pile of moist rice noodles to untangle, but the dish is never served cold and “veggies” are served on the side, ranging from pickled onions to fresh Asian basil, sliced chilies, cilantro, saw leaf, and bean sprouts.

Nutritionally, pho maybe not the most inspired Vietnamese dish, but it is filling, comfort food — South Asia’s meat and potatoes. It is rather simple, with no strong or offensive tastes, so for most westerners, it is quite palatable. Because you add the aromatics yourself, you can choose to keep your pho completely plain.

Have it your way!

Even seasoned pho experts argue about the “authentic” way to eat the soup.

Some argue that adding hot sauce, or Rooster sauce, to the broth ruins the subtlety of the flavor, and in the same manner one is never to add Hoisin sauce either. However, for some, this makes their pho complete.

Fresh lime juice can be added, but just a touch, and use the fish sauce to dip your meat into. Don't pour it into the broth, whatever you do.

Pho afficionados also argue over the best balance of basil and sprouts. Some say to add the entire stalk of basil, do not eat it, and let the essence of the oils escape into the hot broth.

Others say to eat the leaves, strip the stalk, let the leaves cook, and then eat them with the meat and noodles in one bite. All told, sprouts are best left raw, and added to your spoon, as some like to bite into something crunchy, but if put into the hot broth, they will wilt and lose flavor.

To enhance the broth, some places use MSG, or monosodium glutamate, a questionable ingredient that is tremendously salty, addictive, and to be avoided when possible.

You may ask if a place uses MSG, but many will deny it, or say no, when the truth is a bit different. If they truly do not use it, the restaurant will most likely indicate that clearly at the entrance or on the menu.

You have to find a place that serves the pho with the salt content you find acceptable, or make it yourself. You cannot ask for less salt, the broth is made on a daily basis, the chef decides the level of spice, but you can eat the contents and not drink the remains.

So which pho do you order?

in North Diamond Bar says their #1 seller is the rare beef brisket. They offer many varieties of all sorts of beef and chicken.

Some pho houses also serve seafood pho, though this is not traditional. Only beef, chicken, or vegetarian pho is the northern specialty.

Traditionally, the meat is served raw and sliced razor thin, then cooked by you in the hot soup to your specifications, a bit like Shabu. To make pho a faster meal, however, restaurants have semi-cooked some of the beef, and many pho lovers ask for the rare beef on the side, placing it on the spoon with broth and a bit of noodle.

This ensures the meat doesn’t overcook and get rubbery. Fork and spoon in hand, slurp your noodles with the broth and any sides you like. Do not try to be dainty, it just makes your soup turn cold. Slurp away, and sweat outside of the bowl please.

Area pho lovers shared with me the following preferences:

Tom Pham of Walnut prefers Pho Ha in Brea, which he said is the “most authentic."

Cecilia Cheung of Walnut was raised in Vietnam, and said she likes to go to Rosemead for Vietnamese cuisine but that her favorite in the area is Pho Ha in Industry.

Jessica Wijaya of Rowland Heights said she prefers Pho Rowland's style.

“I think I just got used to their style of Pho," Wijaya said. "That is where I go.”

Mailet Tuason and her husband Ed, prefer in Diamond Bar.

“We came back from a trip to Saigon, and tried this place because of the name," Tuason said. "We think it tastes the most authentic. It is our favorite.”

Lily Tran prefers Pho Ha in Industry.

“If I don’t make pho at home," Tran said, "then the best is Pho Ha in Industry."

Patch Editor loves in Diamond Bar. “I’m there at least once a week," he said. "I think I’m hooked.”

In addition to the pho, there are Vietnamese dishes to try, and the eggrolls are a classic accompaniment to hot soup. Vietnamese food is known to be healthy and fresh, so why not plan on trying each one, and choosing a favorite?

Let us know which one suits your tastes, and which Pho you prefer, and your special “recipe”.

Diana Chinn May 09, 2011 at 12:04 AM
I love the pho with all the traditional ingredients. Another ingredient to add I did not see mention is Mint!!! :) Gotta try all these new places mentioned Mmmm, thank you great article :)
Gabriela Klein May 09, 2011 at 04:57 AM
Thanks Diana! Maybe we can go to Ciel Chocolatier after! Haha!
Henry Montemayor May 09, 2011 at 02:22 PM
I like several Pho Resturants, but particularly Pho Express in the Albertsons shopping center I also like Pho Rowland. Both are very good, and very economical also.
Gabriela Klein May 09, 2011 at 10:14 PM
Thanks Henry! I haven't tried Pho Express. What type do you order, and how do you eat yours?
Fred Romero May 10, 2011 at 01:08 AM
Lots of good info in your article. I've tried it once before. Will have to try it again soon.

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