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Jan 10, 2006 02:07 PM

Pho without MSG?

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I'm a huuuge Pho fan, but I'm really sensitive to MSG. Can anyone recommend a good place for Pho in the Portland area that doesn't use MSG in their soup? Pho Van in the Pearl would my closest Pho-fix, but their MSG makes me feel sick and so I have to stay away. Any ideas? Thanks!!

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  1. Funny. Pho Van doesn't use MSG. Google "false positive".

    10 Replies
    1. re: extramsg

      Hmmm. I've been eating their soup for years - always enjoying it, but also always feeling a bit icky after. I finally asked and they said yes, they do use MSG but only in their Pho. Phooey. So that's why I'm looking for other options.

      1. re: E-Books

        I called to confirm and you're right. If you want to call around, here are the other places I like for pho:

        Pho Oregon
        Pho Dalat
        My Canh
        Pho Thien
        Pho Hung
        Chino Saigon
        Jin Wah

        Places I don't like for pho:

        Yen Ha
        Mi Wa
        Pho Huy
        Thien Hong
        Pho Vietnam
        Pho Huy

        Those first couple recommended ones are the best. Have no idea on whether they use MSG. I'd have yourself tested, though. Maybe it's something else. Glutamate sensitivity is pretty darned rare and it would mean that you'd also have problems with fish sauce, soy sauce, and parmesan. Plus additives such as whey protein and yeast protein extract. You shouldn't have flu like symptoms, you should feel flush, or tingly, or itchy.

        1. re: extramsg

          MSG makes me feel pretty lousy, too. I don't think I'm allergic, but I feel like crud after I eat something with MSG in it. Kinda wired, and tingly/itchy like you said.

          We just check our fish sauce/shrimp paste/etc before buying it to make sure there's no MSG in it, and fortunately there is usually a brand without the stuff.

          Hey, don't take it personally, xtramsg! Think of it as "more msg for you".

          Bummer about Pho Van.

          1. re: patrick

            Not to get too far off-topic, but know that such things as soy sauce have naturally occurring glutamates, so you can't check for MSG on the label. There's no need to add it. Same with parmesan, tomatoes, etc, etc. All those various weird proteins are natural versions of MSG, whereas MSG is a synthesized version. The only differences, I believe, is that MSG is bound to sodium which gives it a slight salty flavor and makes it shakeable.

            1. re: extramsg

              well, it's definitely the synthesized version that gets me all itchy. That's true of many synthesized or extracted chemicals, in comparison to their naturally-occurring or whole-herb origins. Think kava kava, or ephedrine, for example.

              the key, though, is the everyday thing--as someone else noted, millions of Asians eat MSG every day. I don't, though, and so when I do consume it, I notice its effect (and not with pleasure). Same goes for coffee--I used to drink it a lot, to no ill effect, and now that I don't drink it, just a few sips give me the jitters.

              1. re: patrick

                Monosodium glutamate is a salt form of glutamic acid, an amino acid that figures prominently in many "natural" proteins. When proteins are aged, they break down. Any protein rich food is going to have plenty of both bound and unbound glutamate even before it's aged. Because MSG is a salt, when it hits liquid it falls apart into sodium and glutamate (consider pho broth, saliva, digestive liquids etc. etc.) so you're either sensitive to free glutamate or you're not. There isn't any molecular difference between the stuff that comes in a bottle (once it hits liquid)and what occurs in say, a nice aged salami or cheese or a steak or a good bottle of soy or fish sauce or salted anchovies or mushrooms or human breast milk. What does make a difference is how fast your blood plasma glutamate levels spike, but even that is controversial, and glutamate doesn't readily cross the blood/brain barrier.

                My point? If you don't have trouble with liquidy foods that contain large amounts of soya sauce or fish sauce (which have high levels of "natural" bound and unbound glutamate), then it's highly unlikely you'd have trouble with MSG in pho broth and it's something else that is bothering you.

                Nearly any restaurant on Nick's list is going to use MSG in their pho. If they say they don't, I wouldn't personally believe them anyway.


                1. re: trillium

                  Wow! Thank you everyone for your help. I'm not sure what the problem is, because I definitely don't have the same reaction with tomato sauce, parmesan, etc. I just notice it after the fact with some soups - i.e. some Pho, after a big bowl of wonton soup at Good Taste once. Sounds like I need to do some more research. Basically I just want to eat my favorite foods and not have them make me feel sick. I think I'll try more places and see if I have the reaction every time or not...I must have a sensitivity to some other ingredient. Thanks, again!

                  1. re: E-Books

                    Maybe consider getting an allergy test from your doctor? I read that often times people are reacting to other ingredients that are common allergens, like peanuts/peanut oil, in Asian cooking when they think they are reacting to msg. You can develop these allergies as an adult, apparently.

                    1. re: E-Books

                      E-books (and anyone else who is interested),

                      Forgive me if this is not an option, but:

                      I have two recipes for pho that are really good approximations of the "real thing."

                      One is Easy, and one is Less Easy.

                      E-mail me off list if you'd like copies of them. Homemade is the only kind of pho I've had for the past couple of years.

            2. re: extramsg

              My understanding is that msg is a minor but staple ingredient in pho-that every place uses it.

              To add to extramsg's point, keep in mind a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce and parmasan has significantly more msg than a bowl of pho does. You might also keep in mind that billions of Asians eat plenty of msg daily without complaining of the symptoms that Americans do.

        2. Don't know about Portland, but if you ever get to Seattle, Monsoon serves a Kobe Beef Pho for their weekend brunch. I know for a fact that they don't use any MSG in it. Its also one of the best bowls of pho I've ever had!


          1. there's a pho place called got pho? @ 3634 NE Sandy Blvd that claims they do not use MSG.

            1. The original comment has been removed
              1. I've been looking for pho in the Northwest (specifically in Kitsap county) as well without MSG. What bothers me is that the replies to the original poster gives the impression that pho with MSG is what pho should taste like. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my mind you really haven't eaten pho till you've eaten it with broth made from scratch.

                I think what some people don't understand is that making the pho broth with MSG is the easy way out. My Vietnamese in-laws will literally take a full day just to make the broth right. Of course, most of the shops in the Northeast don't go through this trouble cause unfortunately we've come to accept the broth with MSG. In areas like Orange County, CA that have to compete for the Vietnamese business and can't rely on the other ethnicities to make up, you just don't see MSG in the broth. Shops down there know if the Vietnamese clientele just wanted the stuff with MSG flavoring, they can just go to the local market and buy the canned broth or the broth packets.