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Describe the Qualities of a Great bowl of Pho to me

I had a combonation Pho [Pho dac biet?] tonight for dinner. It was pretty good on multiple levels though there was one thing that stood out as negative to me.

The broth was weak.

What I did like was:
- The noodles were not 'mush' or terribly in ball form.
- The variety meats were perfectly cooked and tender and I could savor each of the different textures - which is my favorite part. The rare cooked portion arrived rare and cooked as it sat in the broth.
- Plentiful herbs, jalapenos and Bean sprouts [though only two varieties of herb]

This leads me to the inquiry.

I really didnt get that beefy - hours-long bone boiling - taste caressed by the seductive scent of star anise. Is this what I should be looking for in a broth.

What herbs should I look for?

My third bowl thus far - and I am finally starting to understand the beauty of this dish. The levels of taste- fresh herbs, satisfying beef, hot broth, spicy shots of Jalapeno and siracha, sweet-salty-smokey hoisin, and al dente noodles.

Now I just need a Vietnamese music group similar to the Cambodian influenced Dengue Fever!

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  1. The best pho does not actually need doctoring up with a squirt of sriracha or hoisin sauce or lime. taste a spoonful first and only add the extras if necessary. but do add the fresh herbs, bean sprouts, and slivers of jalapeno if u like chilie heat. If the broth is great, get your heat from the jalapenos rather than the sriracha because the sriracha adds a vinegar element to the broth. The hoisin adds a lot of sweetness, which if the broth is really good, you may not feel is necessary. The broth should make you feel as if you are imbibing liquid gold. many pho places cheat and use stock cubes in with their bones and roast meat to get a richer flavor, but the best pho broth is made with all of the flavors of the bones and roast but no cube, the richness comes simply from being well made. another way to cheat on pho is to use chicken bones mixed in, but great pho has only beef bones and tail and roast in the stock. It shouldn't be too sweet. It should be just slightly too salty to not become bland after adding the noodles. Also, the bouqet garni flavors of cinnamon and star anise should be undertones, not pronounced. weak or flat broth makes for bad pho. good pho broth should be clear but with a bit of fat and seem beefy and rich.

    The best bowl of pho has fresh noodles, which are now more widely available in the US. They are much better than the rehydrated ones. They should be very slightly chewy or al dente as you said.

    The meats: meat should be plentiful. the tripe should be tender and not overly hard or chewy. The bo tai (thinly sliced steak meat) should be added a top of everything last and not steep in the broth as it comes to your table. You should mix it in yourself as you stir your herbs in. That way, it remains rare and does not overcook.

    The herbs: in your pho should be slivers of onion and green onion. you will have your standard plate of Asian basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, mint, and sliced green chilies/jalapenos plus lime. You should only add a bit of each, nothing should overwhelm the broth. A herb to look for is called ngo gai, it looks like a long flat leaf. It is expensive and not served at all restaurants for that reason. a reputable pho place will serve it.

    One last tip is to have your pho at a place that specializes in pho rather than place that serves everything and pho is just one of the many menu items.

    If you add bo vien (beef balls) they should be freshy made at the restaurant and not be those rubbery or gristly ones from the package.

    After you have been eating the un-adulterated broth for a while, you can add the sriracha, hoisin, lime juice to lift the flavors or change the flavors (it changes as the broth cools) just for some variety. you can also make your own dipping sauce on the side with them and dip your meats into them.

    maybe you can ask chowhounders of your city where to find the best bowl of pho?

    17 Replies
    1. re: luckyfatima

      luckyfatima, you said it all. Several points leapt out as I read the OP, especially adding Sriracha and hoisin, use of herbs, and making the stock. But you said everything perfectly!

      1. re: luckyfatima

        Some pho places use MSG which I can feel afterward by my thirst. I prefer to ad some fish sauce to my broth and then a little sriracha.

        1. re: luckyfatima

          Wow luckyfatima, that is a great description. You are very lucky indeed if you have access to this great a bowl of pho. I must admit that I like the hoisin/sriracha in my soup, even though I can eat at a place where the broth is remarkably delicious. I think it has to do with my Korean background, we tend to like a lot of punch in some of our soups. But I totally understand about the "liquid gold" criterion. I would add one thing to your description to make it complete, and it relates to your point about "imbibing liquid gold". If it is a really good pho, you will finish every last drop of your broth, and not just leave it sitting in the bowl. Good pho (like all soups) is all about the broth.

          1. re: luckyfatima

            I like a spritz of lime to brighten things up, but agree that sriracha and hoisin can cover up some the nuances of a great broth. The suggestion of mixing them together to make a dipping sauce is a traditional one: a friend of mine refers to it as "Vietnamese ketchup."

            As far as the herbs go, cilantro is a poor substitute for ngo gai (aka culantro, mexican coriander, sawleaf herb). I've found that many places have it, but won't serve it (or maybe just won't serve it to westerners) unless requested. It is spendy, and will often go to waste if the customer doesn't know what it is or doesn't like it. And as for mint, my regular place doesn't serve it with pho. Royal basil and culantro and we're good to go.

            Oh, and one more thing: some places will bring the bo tai out on a separate plate. That way you can cook it just rare in the broth, one piece at a time. Only problem is that you have to do it while the broth is hot or you'll be having carpaccio with the last of your pho.

            Well, now I know what's for lunch today...

            1. re: alanbarnes

              alanbarnes: glad you mentioned the service of the bo tai on a separate plate. It's something that I'll always request, but I find that it's more than just for keeping it rare.

              Whenever I order a bowl of pho, usually pho tai gan or a pho tai gan sach, I'll ask for tai ?rin?, which is a request to have the tai served on the side. I'll also ask for ?tien sup?, which is a request for a small, separate bowl of broth. Often times I'll also ask for nuoc ?bao? too, which is a request for the clarified fat, most often served with green onions, that they skim off of the soup while preparing.

              By requesting for tai ?rin? it allows me to cook the tai to the desired doneness, as alanbarnes points out, important if one wants to preserve the natural sweetness of the beef by keeping it on the rare side.

              By asking for ?tien sup? I get a separate small bowl of broth in order to cook the tai in individually just before adding it to my main soup to eat with the noodles. This is important as it keeps the main broth clean and clear, both visually and for the palatte. It's amazing how quickly a bowl of beautifully prepared pho turns cloudy and muddy just by cooking the tai in the main bowl. So the ?tien sup? both cooks the tai as well as rinses it of any rendered blood and protein that would otherwise coagulate and cause a mess in the main bowl. If one were to look at this bowl after cooking even just a few slices of tai, it's clearly far from appetizing, especially when compared to the original broth.

              The nuoc ?bao? provides an extra punch to the soup by adding some body and much taste if the soup is a bit on the thin side. A side of sliced, vinegared onions is also a nice addition to the soup if one is looking to add a bit of vegetal sweetness.

              It's a bit more work on the waitstaff, as now there needs to be a separate bowl for the tai ?rien?, the ?tien sup? and the nuoc ?bao?, none of which typically adds to the cost of the bill. I'll actually feel better if they charged me for this, as it will make me feel less guilty about having them drag out all of the extra plates, and removes any confusion with a non-VN asking for these acoutrements.

              For those who are fans of tai, I heartedly recommend they give this means of service a try. And even to those who do not like tai they can still experiment with sides of nuoc ?bao? and/or vinegared sliced onions, which adds more variety and means for the customer to customize the soup to their own liking.

              And to any native VN speakers out there, what is the correct spelling of these words between the '?' marks?

                1. re: TSQ75

                  TSQ75: I tried to define all VN words, of which I am no expert! The '?' signs indicates that I am unsure of their spelling...

                  Here's the 2nd paragraph excerpted from my post, of which, I believe, suggests the definitions:

                  Whenever I order a bowl of pho, usually pho tai gan or a pho tai gan sach, I'll ask for tai ?rin?, which is a request to have the tai served on the side. I'll also ask for ?tien sup?, which is a request for a small, separate bowl of broth. Often times I'll also ask for nuoc ?bao? too, which is a request for the clarified fat, most often served with green onions, that they skim off of the soup while preparing.

                  What I did not mention is that tai, or more accurately bo tai, is thinly-sliced raw beef, which when added to the hot bowl of pho, quickly cooks it. Also gan is tendon, and sach is tripe. So pho tai gan is a bowl of pho with tai (rare beef) and gan (tendon), while pho tai gan sach is a bowl of pho with tai (rare beef) and gan (tendon) and sach (tripe).

                  1. re: cgfan

                    yes i am wrong about mint being in with the herbs...scratch the mint...

                    one comment on getting bo tai on the side, it is really hard to understand people when they say things in Vietnamese and don't get the tones right, so asking for bo tai on the side in thickly foreign accented Vietnamese might not be the best way to go and could cause confusion. if one's server isn't fluent enough to understand your English...if y'all are really hardcore pho lovers and want your bo tai on the side, ask a friend who is literate in Vietnamese to write that down on a slip of paper complete with the VN diacritics and show it to the waiter. I know that sounds crazy, and they may have a laugh at you, but at least the will understand and give you what you want. and hey, anything for the best pho.

                    1. re: luckyfatima

                      i generally see Culantro or cilantro, aling with a variety of basil in with the herbs

                      1. re: luckyfatima

                        You aren't wrong. Some places do serve mint. Add-ins vary by restaurant. It's rare but mint goes really well with pho, imo.

                  2. re: cgfan

                    I *think* I might have discerned what you meant.
                    - tai rieng - 'rieng' just means separate (or at least the pronunciation is the same as 'rien,' but boy could I be wrong on whether there is 'g' and could be changing the meaning of the word entirely)
                    - them soup - 'them' just means more, and soup is exactly what you think it is
                    - nuoc beo - litterally means fatty water/liquid

                    Per the discussion of herbs & additions, I like lightly steamed sprouts, Thai basil, ngo gai (which apparently is culantro), and peppers - I've seen mint and cilantro served on the herb plate, but that always stuck me as weird (and lazy).

                    And the person who said they have had better pho in North American than Vietnam: I don't know where you've been eating, so it might well be true, but traditionally made pho is definitely better in Vietnam (as in ox-tail broth and the whole deal) as far as I'm concerned.

                    1. re: Ali

                      Ali: Thank you much for the spellings!

                      LuckyFatima: Good advice in general, regarding non-native speakers trying to speak the language. However I seem to have gotten to the point in my pronunciations where I have way more luck trying to pronounce the VN words that I am most familiar with rather than use their English equivalents.

                    2. re: cgfan

                      For your concern about spelling, i'm an Vietnamese so i really much expert on spelling.
                      Tai rieng: tai is for thin slice of beef stake, rieng is seperate
                      Them nuoc: them is for more, nuoc is soup
                      Nuoc beo: nuoc is for soup, beo is for fat

                  3. re: luckyfatima

                    I'm going to Pho 75 tonight and will try this eloquently stated technique. I usually just dump in lots of sriracha then go to town putting extra sriracha and hoisin on most bites.

                    Shame on me.

                    1. re: luckyfatima

                      Thanks for this luckyfatima.

                      I eat a lot of pho, but I'm not Vietnamese, so I may be underqualified. The pho scene here in Vancouver is not is the same league as LA and the Bay Area. We do have some good restaurants since we have a sizable Vietnamese population.

                      Before even judging the pho, I judge the restaurant itself - it should be clean and busy...the TVs shouldn't be too loud! The bathrooms should be clean (I think I'm not alone in this insistence!)

                      My ideal pho has a good deep, beefy broth which is slightly sweet and has a hint of caramel from charred onions and ginger. The broth should not be murky and grey - it should be fairly clear and brown (perhaps from the onions). The anise/cinnamon/clove flavours should be subtle.

                      My pho of choice is pho tai - the beef should be sliced thin, of course and I like it put on top of the soup so that it comes to your table rare.

                      I prefer the side plate to have plenty of herbs and not heaping with sprouts ( which I don't really care for). I usually squirt the lime, add chili and swirl in the herbs, then dig in. I use the sauces to dip the beef - I don't swirl the sauces into the soup. (I have seen folks swirl in the sauces into the soup both here and in Vietnam...so it seems to be OK either way).

                      I like rice noodles fresh and just past al dente and easily separated when swirled. I should not have any hint of graininess or starchiness.

                      And lastly, it should be followed up with a good Lime Soda (sweet or salty) made fresh - no cheating with the addition of 7-Up!

                      I may be strung up for this, but I think I have had better pho here in North America than I ever had in Vietnam. Am I wrong?

                      1. re: fmed

                        fmed: fear not! For the most part, I've had better pho tai in North America (even in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, not exactly known for a large SE Asian population) than I've had in three trips to Vietnam, including in Hanoi, where the dish was invented. In fact, in all my time in Hanoi, I've been hard pressed to even find pho tai in street stalls (my preferred place to eat there) despite these many visits. What I have found has been incredible pho ga (chicken). I mean, truly amazing stuff. (And, thinking about this now, I don't think I've ever even eaten any sort of beef in VN, but mainly chicken and fish.)

                        I have never seen anyone use srirhacha or hoisen sauce in VN. What I have seen and used and loved is sliced garlic in vinegar. Also, limes. I think the herbs pretty much have been bean sprouts and whatever else is available.

                        1. re: fmed

                          If you have an opportunity to go to Vietnam you should go to the south because they have better pho than the north Vietnam-that what's i think.

                      2. A broth with a range of flavors is what makes an exceptionally good pho. Many people describe their pho as having a nice 'depth' to it. This depth and range, IMO, is often achieved by what I add once the pho is served to me. I usually add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime.
                        I add raw bean sprouts. I add fresh thai basil leaves or fresh mint leaves, depending on what I ordered. And, lastly, I always add a hint of hoisin mixed with sriracha just with the tips of my chopsticks. Soup nirvana.

                        My preferences for pho are pho tai bo vien, and bun bo (hue style - spicy). Both of these are beef soups, and along with both I prefer egg noodles rather than rice noodles.

                        One word of advice, sample as many pho establishments and dishes as you can -- eventually one will really appeal to you and hopefully you'll have fun while you search.

                        1. Darn, now you've got me craving it again, and I just had it last night! But this post has helped me identify what was wrong with it -- no cilantro or mint, for one thing. And not much anise taste. Not bad for my neighborhood though.
                          Another thing -- I ate a large dinner of several courses at a Vietnamese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley recently, and immediately got a terribly, sharp headache. Was this the dreaded msg headache?
                          A few days later, I had just pho from another equally authentic place with no trouble. Strange.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Chowpatty

                            I don't believe it is just the MSG by itself that gives you the headache. I think it is generally a combination of additives that creates this effect, usu. I think it's salt and MSG.

                          2. Just one other element: the setting.

                            I think pho is best served on a busy sidewalk crowded with parked motorcycles where there is a very low table and only slightly lower plastic stools--making customers low and hunched. Stacks of bowls--some slightly chipped, plastic container of chopsticks and spoons, the big sectioned cylindrical pot, the tin plate/dishes of ingredients, the big plastic basket of greens behind the glass faced light-bulb lit box, the big tub of water and used dishes and glasses on the ground, the cloth covered jar for the money, the sound of people--and their flip-flops--and motorcycles passing by...

                            1. for me, the best pho, should be the one at the top of the list, with every part of the cow in it. you should have a good mounded plate of fresh herba and sprouts and chilis, as well as a wide assortment of condiments including sambals, hoisin, soy, fish sauce, etc.
                              a spoon and stix.

                              always ask the server which is the best or which is their favorite

                              1. Generally I don't have a problem with any of the pho places in LA. Never had a bowl with weak stock, or mushy noodles. Once in a while some stock has too much cinnamon/star anise to my liking.

                                Most of them though have the meat not done quite right. My favorite local place has flank that's tender, tendons that melt in your mouth, and the rare steak was tender even when it was completely cooked through, not chewy.

                                I usually put 2-3 basil leaves into the soup as I don't a strong basil flavor, and a ton of bean sprouts. I put the hoisin and sriracha onto the small dish, and scoop some up with my soup spoon and only dip the meat and sometimes the noodles into them. Never into the soup. When the soup's good, I don't want to ruin it with too many other flavors.

                                Never seen mint with the noodles, only with the egg rolls.

                                1. Nothing I can really add to the thread that's already been said, but I'll go through my checklist:

                                  1) Check the hours. It's not a hard and fast indicator, but if it's open early, it simply means that there's a large Viet ex-pat community that supports it, since pho is traditionally breakfast. Similarly, check the clientele.

                                  2) Check the menu. It's a good idea to go for a shop that has pho almost exclusively on the menu, though there's nothing wrong with various side dishes, maybe a few com tam dishes (since it's also breakfast) and even bun or hu tieu.

                                  3) I order Pho Bo Vien + Tai Rieng: meatballs plus sliced raw beef on the side. That's just a personal preference. If I'm particularly conjested, I'll go straight for Pho Dac Biet, which will tend to include everything above as well as tripe and tendon.

                                  4) Check the soup. It should produce a clean flavor, akin to beef consomme. It shouldn't be too fatty, but still filling. One of the reasons to avoid Pho Dac Biet is the fact that the flavors muddle the soup, and so if you go to a place for the first time, Dac Biet might not give you the best indicator.

                                  5) Check the herbs. Ngo gai (sawtooth herb) and hung que (thai basil) are pretty standard, though I've also seen places serve perilla, which is also a common addition to fried egg rolls. I personally just squeeze a little lime and toss in the jalapenos.

                                  6) Check the doneness of the beef. This is one of the reasons why I like the raw beef on the side, as it makes it my own personal shabu-shabu. This is especially important in places that serve "premium" meat in their soup, like Pho Thanh Lich and their slices of filet mignon. But served properly, and there should still be a pink core in the meat, though obviously it's my preference for such meat. Your preference might be for more well-done meat, but in that case, go for brisket.

                                  7) Regarding the side additions (sriracha and hoisin): proper procedure is to take one of the small saucers and use it as a dipping sauce for the meat. Again, this is to prevent it from muddling up the broth. But in the end, do whatever you like. The nuoc beo is a nice addition, but it's seriously straight fat.

                                    1. I remember eating at Pho Hoa every Saturday as a kid in Eden Center at Seven Corners in VA. There was just something special about the pho. It doesn't taste exactly like onion, beef, anise, ginger...it's something of it's own. It's instantly recognizable and sends shockwaves of memories and warm feelings throughout my body. The broth is piping hot and a clear pale amber. It seems like it should taste light and crisp, but a sip gives you a sensation that you are filling your body up with all the goodness of the world.

                                      God I hope it wasn't the MSG at work, lol.

                                      Nowadays pho around the area isn't as good anymore. The last time I ate an incredible bowl of pho like that was a bowl of pho ga in San Diego.

                                      1. Pho 79 in Alhambra CA is a tired looking place decorated with plastic plants they keep neglecting to dust, somewhat lackadaisical waiters, and a cashier that half the time seems to disappear exactly when you need to leave. But the pho is SO GOOD and SO CHEAP - I guess they hired all the talent for the kitchen and gave the other jobs to whoever wandered in. The broth is to my mind perfect, in that it is fragrant of star anise and other herbs without smearing the flavors all over your tongue. It is beefy and boney without threatening a gout attack (for some of us, this matters!). The noodles are firm and supple, the meats delicious and perfectly cooked, the beef balls rich in flavor, tender without being flabby, and juicy, and the fresh herbs crisp and elegant. We know so many places where the atmosphere and presentation are brisk, friendly, assertive, whatever, but this seemingly tired old joint gives us some of the best damn soup on the planet, for $5 per bowl or less.