Over my many years of eating bowl after bowl of pho, I have noticed some people don’t enjoy it the way they should. For starters, the average pho restaurant in America does not come close to being what the experience should be for every noodle-and-broth lover.
The Right Pho Place
So start there. If you are not making pho on your own–most good broths take all night to render–then you need to start with the perfect pho restaurant. If you are me, there is no restaurant greater or more comforting than Photastia in Irvine, California. I am obsessed with this place, just ask my girlfriend, who dreads every Sunday when I enviably crave the ultimate hangover food.
I went to UC, Irvine, right near the restaurant. I used to come here when I accomplished something big at school. I ate this pho restaurant when I graduated college. I would come here and get their Vietnamese iced coffee, which is strong and sweet–the way it should be. A perfect Vietnamesese iced coffee with pho is a must for the restaurant to become your go-to.
This one has a special place in my heart. Someday, your favorite pho place will have a special place in your heart too.
The Perfect Bowl
The perfect pho always starts with the broth. If it isn’t fully boiled from the marrow of the bones of an animal on-site, you’ve already ran into a problem. The best part about pho is how delicate the broth is, how balanced it is. No boxed broth.
Next the meat itself. My favorite thing in all of pho is charbroiled meat instead of steamed. This is by far the superior way to have meat and adds a whole new depth of flavor to the dish. I go for the charbroiled chicken at Photasia.
Then you need to make sure the herbs, jalapenos, and bean sprouts are as fresh as possible. In Southeast, pho is on the street and the basil is picked fresh from a pot on the table. That’s how fresh you want your herbs.
On the table should also be hoison sauce, sriracha, fish sauce, and both chili paste and chili sauce. The distinction is key: chili sauce is sweetened and chili paste is bitter and spicy, usually served with chili oil. Another must have is pickled jalapenos. In my opinion, they are much better than the fresh jalapenos, though the fresh add a much-needed bite. I put both into my soup.
Eating it the Right Way
It isn’t as simple as having the right ingredients. It’s about how those ingredients are presented to you and what you do with them. The meat, if charbroiled, should be served to you on a separate plate. The broth of stock, fish sauce, onions, anise, and other fragrant ingredients are poured over noodles just before serving.
Wait! Don’t put all of the ingredients in the bowl immediately. For the perfect pho experience, you need to thoughtfully plan this out. I go straight for the fresh jalapenos because no matter how long they’re in the hot broth, they’ll be great. Then I add my meat, if it’s on the side. I put in my pickled jalapenos, bean sprouts, cilantro and Thai basil, then, carefully, I add a combination of sauces.
Hold off on the sriracha. The thing people screw up the most with pho is putting too much sriracha in their broth because they love it. Bad move. Don’t ruin your broth. First add just the smallest amount of hoison. I don’t like to add more fish sauce, but if you do, party on. Then I sprinkle a bit of chili paste in a strategic area so that it takes a while to get through the broth. I leave the sriracha and chili sauce in the smallest little bowls the perfect place always has. The Vietnamese understand that they shouldn’t mess up the broth. It took eight hours.
First, take a sip of the broth. Then, you are unconstrained, able to experiment in any way with every bite. To best eat pho, it is a strategic road map the the freedom of unique bites at the end when you take that first bite.