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REAL pho eludes me!

I've tried everything I can find in my pursuit to make restaurant quality pho and I just can't figure it out. I've made numerous batches of pho bo and pho ga trying everything I possibly find.Different recipes, techniques, ingredients and it's just not happening. It's good but not anywhere close to the league of the heavenly goodness of a good pho shop.

I char the ginger and onions and I briefly dry fry the spices in a frying pan and heat them up until they excrete their personality. I've tried obscene amounts of bones an simmer them for 8 hours (for beef). I've tried fish sauce, MSG, varying quantities of salt, rock sugar, and on and on. I've followed various experts recipes to the T and it's just not happening.

Does anyone know how to make pho that's restaurant quality? Anyone worked in a pho restaurant? What the heck is the secret? Could I be doing something royally stupid?

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  1. What is it that is lacking? Spicing? Meatiness? Herbs? Condiments? Give us something to go on!

    PS: Have you tried using something meatier then just bones? Something with both meat and connective tissue, like oxtail, short ribs, or even chuck steak (7 bone)? When cold, the stock should be gelatinous.

    13 Replies
    1. re: sbp

      "PS: Have you tried using something meatier then just bones? Something with both meat and connective tissue, like oxtail, short ribs, or even chuck steak (7 bone)? When cold, the stock should be gelatinous."

      This.

      I like to use oxtail and 7 bone chuck. Tenderloin for the "tai" meat. (get it at asian markets, it's cheaper there)

      BTW, pho restaurants use a lot of MSG too :) (even the best ones)

      1. re: darrentran87

        Every pho restaurant I've asked admits to using it, yet I can't recall a pho recipe that I've seen that calls for MSG! So I've tried it a few times but think maybe I'm being too conservative and not putting enough in. I've read 1/2 tsp per quart of broth is pretty standard so that's what I've used but I don't notice much difference from not adding it at all.

        1. re: freedy

          Freedy, here's the thing... Pho in America tastes better than pho in Vietnam, generally speaking. (Well, it prob depends where you are in America too. I live near Little Saigon in So Cal so it's a heavily Vietnamese populated area... so we have some good pho restaurants here.) Anyways, my mom will be the first to admit that pho made at home does not taste as good as the restaurants. She says some restaurants use "premade pho broth" instead of water to start their stock. This creates a richer, saltier, and more MSG-filled experience. I don't know how true this is, but it seems accurate. When my mom makes pho at home, it's a bit lighter than the pho in restaurants.

          So basically I'm trying to say that it's hard to achieve restaurant pho without going fully gluttony on MSG. I feel there is much more MSG in restaurant broth than we think. secondly, to get that insanely rich broth, you might want to add in beef knuckle or some beef bones that have a lot of bone marrow to add flavor. My mom doesn't like to use too much because of the high fat/cholesterol content in these bones, hence lighter broth when she makes it. Ironically, when she makes a pork based noodle soup, she uses pork bones and it has that richness that I feel you are lacking in your pho (by reading your post below this one)....... but of course i could be all wrong :(

          Good luck and let me know how it goes!

          1. re: darrentran87

            That's an interesting perspective and I've kind of been suspecting some sort of flavor enhancement in restaurants. The pork bones idea seems like a good suggestion even if for no other reason than to experiment with it.

            I'm in Ventura County so I'm not too far from Little Saigon. When I first embarked on my pho adventures I took a trip down there on a Saturday to go to some real Vietnamese markets to get ingredients and have that as my point of reference. Of course I did go to a pho restaurant while I was there. I think the place we went to was Pho Quang Trung. It was very good of course but I was happy to find that there are several places near me that are very much in that league. It happened to be the weekend of the Tet Festival so I got to experience some of that. I've never seen 10,000 firecrackers go off in a big string like that before but I saw it several times that day. Also watching the people dancing in the ornate costumes was a real treat!

      2. re: sbp

        What it's lacking is the catch-22. I don't think I've nailed the spices but I really don't think that's the critical factor. For the record though, I've used individual spices called out in the recipes, and then several different packaged pho blends that you can get in good asian markets. Although I may prefer one or the other it's pretty clear that spices aren't the critical factor. That said, I haven't completely figured out the fresh ginger. It seems difficult to capture a decent level of ginger flavor in the end product even though there's plenty of aroma while the broth simmers. After charring the ginger I sometimes even smash it to extract more flavor and I've even up to doubled the amount of ginger that the recipe calls out for. One thing I wonder is if I'm simmering the ginger flavor right out of the broth because the scent is so prevalent early on and then it seems to dissipate. It seems all recipes have you put the ginger in at the beginning and leave it in for the duration. That as opposed to the spices which typically call to put in toward the end and left in only for 15 - 30 minutes typically.

        The chilled broth is always extremely gelatinous. I have tried using some meat, once I added a couple pounds of upper shank with all the meat still on, and another time I added a pound or two of meat but I can't recall specifically what it was. You have me thinking that maybe I'm using too much bones and meat and maybe drowning out everything else. The broth usually ends up rather brown after it's done (both chicken and beef) but the onions seem to at least contribute to that. But I'm thinking of how a demi glace has kind of an off and overwhelming flavor from all that concentrated beef until it's blended with whatever it's to be used in.

        But back to your question of what's lacking, let me respond with a question. What is it about a good bowl of pho that's so magical before you put any condiments in it? I can't put that into words but if I could it would go a long way in explaining what's lacking.

        Not sure that helps much in answering your questions, but you did get me thinking of the possibility that I've been using too many marrow bones.

        1. re: freedy

          The magical part to me is the clean, sweet/salty/deep beefy flavor and the warmth of the cinnamon and star anise. But, that's just me.

          Have you tried this recipe? http://www.steamykitchen.com/271-viet... It doesn't sound much different from what you've done, but I've had very good results with it and the only thing I do differently is that I add a pack of oxtails, as well. I showed the recipe to a Vietnamese friend and after laughing at me for not going to a restaurant and getting a bowl for $6, she said it was a good recipe but that she'd bring me stuff she uses. This last week she brought me the following and bear with me bc I'm just copying the packets: 3" ginger and 4 shallots (to be blackened), Gia Vi pho Hoa (4 packets of ground "pho" spice - cloves, cinnamon, star anise, ginger, and "spice"... smells amazing), Gia Vi Nau Pho Bac Hieu Ong Gia Que Huong (the usual spices - fennel, coriander, star anise, cardamom), and QuocViet Beef Flavored "Pho" Soup Base/Cot Pho Bo. I dunno how I feel about prepackaged spices, but she stressed that the brands are important. She said I still needed to do the bones and meat as in the recipe above, but that the ground spices and soup base are added toward the end - the soup base to taste. Hope this helps.

          Out of curiosity, where do you find your magical pho that can't be recreated?

          1. re: adrienne156

            Hi Adrienne,

            Yes, I have done that recipe and it's kind of the foundation for my adventure. It was good to go back and read it again though because I see I'm deviating in some ways with my experimentation. One is that I've been simmering the bones for more like seven or eight hours vs. three in that recipe. That's unusual to simmer beef marrow bones for such a short time but maybe there's a reason.

            When you make yours how does it turn out compared to a pho restaurant? Does it capture that magical part you describe?

            Regarding where I get pho that has the magic that I refer to. The essence of what I'm referring to I find at just about any pho restaurant that I've been to which is about 10 or so, mostly in SoCal and one a couple weeks ago in San Francisco's Chinatown. That's not to say that all pho is equal. A couple things I look for are intensity and balance. I think a lot of it is also just personal preference. My favorite pho place is a fairly new one nearby called Love Pho N More (http://www.yelp.com/biz/love-phò-n-mo...). I'm not saying it's the best but is one of my favorites. Fortunately it's not difficult to find good pho in my area.

            1. re: freedy

              I go down to SoCal frequently, so I'll check out Love Pho N More next time I'm down there.

              When I make mine at home, it does capture the magical part for me and is actually better than a lot of the pho I've had out - thicker, richer flavor and I like knowing the quality of the meat going in - but I don't make it often bc I'm not comfortable enough with the recipe to reduce it and quite frankly, I'm not a fan of my apartment smelling like fish sauce for four days.

              Another thing I thought of - I may use all leg bones. I usually go to Raley's and ask the butcher for "soup bones" and the bones all usually have marrow. I end up skimming a ton of fat off the top at the end (usually well over a cup). So, that's 4-5 lbs. of leg bones plus another pound or two of oxtails.

              In any case, LUV_TO_EAT sounds right on.

          2. re: freedy

            I find marrow bones and shin of beef to be an excellent combination. I'm lucky with my local butcher, I get free bones with any purchase. For pho it's the marrow bones and I get porterhouse bones.

              1. re: c oliver

                You can't beat ingredients like that. I'm lucky to have an AMAZING asian market nearby as well as Arthur Avenue (The Bronx, NYC)...

                What kills be about the Asian market is they have everything except bonito flakes! Drives me up the wall.

                1. re: UnfilteredDregs

                  I <3 Arthur Avenue. Best butcher in nyc and one of the best fish markets.

                  And I think i know what Asian market you're talking about. Is it Chang Li? I like it so much more than Chinatown. Its nice to have everything in one place. I was also irritated by my being unable to find bonito flakes there.

                  1. re: iamreptar

                    Chang Li is the place, for fish nobody is better than Randazzo's, and I go to Biancardi's or Peter's for meat...

        2. There's a reason they are in the restaurant business while you and I are just voyeuristically posting about it on Chowhound.

          10 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            Ha ha, you don't know me! I don't give up so easily. :) Often it's hard to equal something I set out to reproduce that I liked in a restaurant. But I can't think of a time I couldn't at least capture the essence of the dish but with subtleties lacking. I found a broth based clam sauce that I really liked recently and it took making it about 15 times to get what I was looking for. There are still some things I can't figure out but it's reasonably close and delicious. But this pho adventure really has me stumped. But I'll get through it with trial and error, tenacity, and maybe getting lucky and finding someone who's been where I am and recognizes what I might be doing wrong or am lacking.

            1. re: freedy

              Have you bought the Viet soup base (loaded with MSG)? Most restaurants use a soup base. Once you taste it with the soup base in it, you will recognize it.

              1. re: sedimental

                Yes, I've used the Viet Quoc one and it's pretty good. The sodium content is pretty scary though, I think 1550mg/cup! Seems this is the reality this discussion is heading in though.

                1. re: freedy

                  Ha! I think so.

                  I cook alot of Viet foods at home, at least 3 times a week. IME, whenever you think ..."something is missing"....it is typically not a mystery...it's MSG :)

                  1. re: sedimental

                    Incorporating truffle or kombu (Dried kelp used for making a Dashi) can accomplish the same; they have natural msg compounds...

                    1. re: UnfilteredDregs

                      Nothing wrong with just adding a pinch of MSG either.

                      1. re: c oliver

                        I've seen people experience the supposed MSG reaction, therefore I prefer a natural ingredient which accomplishes the same. I find it to be much more integrated as well. Akin to the difference between using a truffle oil and real truffles.

                        1. re: UnfilteredDregs

                          This comes up with some regularity. This Wiki piece pretty well sums up the current science as well as pointing out that the msg that is currently being produced is natural.

                          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodi...

                  2. re: freedy

                    I found out I have a Vietnamese aunt last year and she owns a restaurant in San Diego. Thats what she uses in her restaurant and she swears by it. And I agree about the MSG.

                    According to Charles Phan of the Slanted Door, its all about the stock. I haven't personally tried his pho recipe, but customers tend to rave about his pho ga rather than his pho bo. Have you tried his recipe from his Vietnamese Home Cooking Cookbook? He abhors MSG though and calls it a "false heightened flavor." He also recommends that you use yellow feathered chickens (Long Island Red Hen). You can get these at an asian market. Otherwise, he recommends getting those smaller pasture-raised heritage breed chickens from the farmer's market. The stock they use at The Slanted Door for their pho ga uses sa sung (dried sea worms) You may want to look into acquiring this from a Vietnamese market. Phan calls it his "secret ingredient".

                    1. re: iamreptar

                      I've been hunting for Sa Sung for over a year, it is virtually impossible to find, even online. It is unheard of in the Vietnamese-American community since most of them are from the south...Sa Sung is a very northern ingredient and used to be ubiquitous to Pho back in the day. My grandmother told me about this and she says you can't substitute it, the flavor is incomparable. She reminisced that the moment they added Sa Sung to the Pho broth, the entire room will fill up with the most intoxicating aroma that defined Hanoi Pho. I read that excerpt from Charles Phan about Sa Sung and he states that you can find it in San Fran's Chinatown. Unfortunately I don't live in CA let alone SF, but anyone in SF could give Chinatown a try and see what they find

                      But Freedy, umami is a very essential part of Pho, I learned this the hard way. I would always make a broth and it was just "missing" something everytime, I couldn't explain it. I wanted to make restaurant quality pho broth at home without all the shortcuts and MSG but I couldn't do it. One day I was wondering, was it really the umami factor that was missing? I experimented and added oyster sauce to a bowl I made. It was like something magical, like matching that last piece of the puzzle that was staring you in the face all that time. I finally caved in and made a batch with soup bouillon, which was mostly MSG anyway...it tasted almost identical to the restaurant version. So in the end of the day, it was really MSG the entire time, and it changed my perspective on it completely since.

                      If you want the powder/MSG free version you can add "natural" MSG by using dried shrimps or scallops instead. It's a very favored tactic of umami injection by many old vietnamese grandmothers, not just in Pho but in every soup based concoction. MSG gets straight to the point but dried seafood adds that extra fullness that is a hallmark of a homecooked soup. Some people use dried squid but I found the flavor too strong. Of course if you can procure some Sa Sung, you can't get any more authentic than that.

            2. Let me first state for the record that after a more than a few *just-not-all-that* pho attempts, I gave up and went back to the $6 bathtub-sized bowl at my local pho joint. My problem with my broth was also too much intense beefiness. My local place has a lighter, pleasantly beefy broth, but with a really rich texture. I’ve started to suspect it has to do with tendon in the broth - this place has the most tender, mouth-meltingly wonderful tendon I’ve ever had, and it had to cook *somewhere*, thus my suspicion that they make the broth with the tendon. freedy asked the question about what makes pho magical; for me it’s that light but rich broth texture. (My own broth misses ended up gelatinous when chilled, but just too beefy.) I haven’t yet mustered the ambition to have another go at it, but I think my next attempt will involve going lighter on the bones and meat and adding in tendon to the simmer. Might be something for the OP to try?

              1. The original comment has been removed
                1. It might be attributed to the fact that their stock is a "master stock" ie you keep adding more water more bones, spices, herbs aromatics etc every day. You can't just replicate that in one go.

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