So Pho, So Good
Since the word "pho" can mean "your own bowl" in Vietnamese, you'd think that a restaurant named Pho 79 was prepared to bowl you over with 79 different soup possibilities.
In fact, Pho 79 misses by about fifty -- but what it does offer is more than enough for me.
"The owners named it that because they liked the way it sounded," one employee explains. "It really doesn't mean anything. But it sounds good, don't you think?" More important than a good-sounding name, though, is good-tasting pho -- and Pho 79 has that and more.
For the last five years, this pho house has been stirring the pot in a small plaza space previously occupied by both Saigon Inn and Co-Do. The decor is sparse but pleasant: Retaining Co-Do's 3-D cutouts of the bridge over the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam, Pho 79 added some plastic plants and wall murals -- one painted to look like blue sky with floating clouds -- that give the room a courtyard feel.
The menu is just as sparse: fruit shakes, Vietnamese coffee and pho -- about two dozen options that come in big, bigger and biggest portions and are priced accordingly, regardless of what's inside the bowls. (The big -- often called "small" or "regular" -- is large enough to feed a very hungry person.) Each bowl is accompanied by a paper sleeve that contains a soup spoon and a pair of chopsticks, along with garnishes of fresh bean sprouts, lemon wedges, jalapeño slices, Asian basil, Vietnamese mint and leaves of something often referred to as "saw herb" or "saw lettuce," a mildly bitter green that's often too jagged around the edges to eat raw. All of these items -- along with the standard table condiments of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, Sriracha hot chile sauce, salt and pepper -- can be added to your soup as you see fit.
But first, taste the pho (and remember to pronounce it "fuh"). This soothing elixir got its start as a Vietnamese breakfast and a nutritious way to start the day, although most pho houses in Vietnam, as well as in this country, now serve it all day. There's just something about pho that satisfies on so many levels, at all times of day: part chicken soup, part pot roast, part spaghetti, it's healthy, hot, filling and addictive.
The cooking process, the types and amounts of ingredients used to make the broth, and the meats added later all have a bearing on the pho's final flavor. For starters, beef shins are boiled until the bones release all of their gelatinous insides, a process that takes about 24 hours. The resulting broth, a sort of consommé, is then salted and boiled down with herbs -- cilantro and basil are common -- and such spices as star anise, ginger and black pepper, along with paper-thin slices of onion, until it takes on an almost tawny hue. It then sits in a big cauldron on the stove awaiting the day's orders. At Pho 79, this broth is a concentrated, faintly salty, fairly beef-strong concoction.
You order your pho based on the types of meats you want added; at Pho 79, the possibilities are explained helpfully at the top of the menu. They include tai, thin slips of eye of round steak; chin, well-done brisket; gau, fatty brisket; gan, soft tendon; nam, well-done flank steak; ve don, skirt flank; sach, tripe; and bo vien, a super-soft beef-based meatball. So an order of pho tai chin will have eye of round steak and well-done brisket floating in the basic broth -- along with whatever other tidbits the restaurant likes to put in -- as well as fresh cilantro, just-chopped scallions and the standard large mound of flat rice noodles.
It's not enough to put the right meats in your pho; they must also be done right. The eye of round, which comes from a cut off the hind leg that isn't attached to the bone and can be tough, was slightly undercooked in my pho tai chin, so that by the time I snagged it off the top of the hot soup with my chopsticks, it was close to perfect. The raw steak in the pho tai chin gau gan sach, on the other hand, required a dunk beneath the noodles so that it could cook a little more, and in that dunking it imparted a yummy, extra beef-bloody flavor to the soup. In addition to the steak, that bowl included fatty brisket, which was deliciously chewy and tasty. (Like tripe and soft tendon, with their rubbery textures and flavors more reminiscent of organ meats than steak, fatty brisket is an acquired taste.)
While you are focusing all of your senses on the delicious contents of your bowl, some of Pho 79's classic pho-house elements might escape your notice. For example, after you've placed your order and received your food and drink, you'd have to put a speed bump next to your table in order to get the server's attention again. And if the eatery is busy, you'll be sitting next to a lot of people you don't know at one of those long tables. (Don't worry: Everyone in a pho house knows the deal and is at least civil to strangers.) And don't wait for the bill, either; your tab is kept next to the cash register, where you're expected to pay. Also, never expect to enjoy your meal in silence; places like Pho 79 tend to do annoying housecleaning chores -- such as sweeping the floor or piling dirty dishes on an unused table when it's too busy to get them into the kitchen -- in the middle of a meal rush. One night I sat beside a group of servers who were emptying plastic bottles so that they could be washed and refilled: It was like eating next to forty people taking turns sitting on whoopee cushions.
But no one at Pho 79 seems to mind such activities. During two meals there (one lunch, one dinner), I sat in a mix of regulars that included students, Asian families, three heavily made-up girls out for a night on the town, a handful of well-heeled Asian ladies, a couple of businessmen, some entry-level office workers and a couple of Hispanic teenagers. Like me, most were washing down their pho with iced coffee or a tooth-achingly sweet fruit drink -- my choice is always the soda lemonade, which is fresh-squeezed lemon juice mixed with a ton of sugar and just-poured seltzer water. (Some of these beverages are also referred to as "daiquiris" and offer such unusual taste sensations as avocado and soursop, a little-seen Caribbean fruit that has a pineapple-like taste.) The refreshing chill of these liquids provided an ideal yin-yang balance for the steamy, salty pho.
At the year-old Pho 99, the clientele is almost all Asian. Both times I visited, all of the other customers stopped to pay homage to a regular who seemed to be some sort of Vietnamese godfather. They weren't distracted in their mission by the loud music, flickering TV or even the fact that the dingy, sparsely decorated dining room wasn't particularly clean. One evening, the pile of dirty dishes awaiting clearing covered three tables -- and the gnawed pig knuckles and partially chewed tripe weren't a very attractive sight. In addition, everyone in the place not only smoked (there's no non-smoking section), but they apparently thought it was okay to flick the ashes into their empty bowls. And Pho 99 was so understaffed that it was impossible to get refills on anything.
Still, the pho was fabulous, a dense, aromatic broth that only got better when meat was added. I tried the pho dac biet, which basically meant everything the kitchen had lying around that could be thrown into the pot, including all possible meats, and the pho nam ve don, with good, not-too-chewy skirt and flank steaks. Both bowls came with huge plates of the usual garnishes. For pho-phobes, Pho 99 also offers Asian appetizers, including greasy but well-seasoned egg rolls, as well as rice noodle bowls, of which the tender, grilled lemongrass chicken was a standout. And then there was the bun bo Hue, a tongue-searingly spicy beef noodle bowl that's a specialty of central Vietnam (add a buck for the pork hock -- the extra flavor boost is unbelievably fatty and salty). This bowl was like a fiery version of pho, and just as complex in its essence.
For good pho that's good for you, both Pho 79 and Pho 99 have your number.
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