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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: UnfilteredDregs

              I get cows feet from my Latino market!

              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. 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.

                1 Reply
                1. re: LUV_TO_EAT

                  That makes sense to me too, LTE.

                2. I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Andrea Nguyen's pho bo. Here's the link from her "Out of the Vietnamese Kitchen," a James Beard nominated book.

                  http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/...

                  I make a HUGE batch of the broth and then freeze in four cup servings. IMneverHO, it's better than any restaurant version. I would advise NOT tinkering around with this recipe

                  15 Replies
                  1. re: c oliver

                    I have tried that recipe and I end up with the same problem. But I notice again that this recipe doesn't call for simmering the bones all day like I've been doing. I think as I and cayjoyan mentioned, maybe too much beefiness is the problem. I'm going to take another stab at it with less bones and meat as that could be destroying the balance and might even cause an off flavor. Worth a try.

                    1. re: freedy

                      Well, not to be snarky, but if you've simmered the bones all day, then you've not tried this recipe. I think it's also quite important to do that preliminary parboil. So what you want to do is reduce the meat and bones while keeping the long cooking time. Why?

                      1. re: c oliver

                        I just looked and see you're a first time poster! Welcome! I'm not going to bore you with links but there have been threads where people complain that they give someone a recipe, it doesn't work out well and then they find out that the recipient didn't follow the recipe to the letter. Just a suggestion.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          Thanks for the welcome and very happy to be here. The quality and participation is even more than I hoped for.

                          1. re: freedy

                            My pleasure. My five or so years here have improved my cooking more than I can possibly describe. I'm 65 and considered myself an above average home cook. NOW I, on a good day, maybe consider myself an above average home cook :) There are so many great people here who help me all the time. Go for it!!!

                        2. re: c oliver

                          Yes, absolutely right. Just as I pointed out in the post you replied to. :)

                          I do tend to take liberties and modify recipes or make hybrid recipes quite often. I think I did that in this case with simmer times and lost track of that fact. But in this case it's not working and clearly I need to go back and do it according to directions before I write the recipe off.

                          1. re: freedy

                            Agreed! I'm a recipe follower cause I figure that why they pay those kids the big bucks :) But others tinker. I think you're right on to go back to the beginning. Good luck.

                        3. re: freedy

                          Hello, if I could reply in general about stocks...

                          (I'm making Pho as I type...made the stock Monday, purified it yesterday and simmered the beef tendon until tender, today I'm going to clarify and serve...)

                          Stocks "bloom."

                          What I mean by that is if you actually step away from them for a while and stop with the mother-hen treatment, what you'll notice is that after a few hours, all of a sudden, the stock will become much more noticably aromatic.

                          When you taste you'll notice all the flavors have integrated. It may require reduction still, but in essence it has come into it's own.

                          It's something to look for, become aware of... In my experience, making a broth for pho, that bloom begins to occur at about the 6 hour mark, for an 11qt pot which will yield about 5 qts of stock after solids are removed.

                          A stock can be deadened by overcooking. You want to catch it when it blooms; it will have a delicate brilliance. You then carefully determine when it's reached it's full flavor. That may be another 1-3 hours. During this time you're seasoning, reducing, balancing the flavor.

                          The key is gentle cooking. Much of the time my stock is warm and steaming, almost never bubbling.

                          It is very much a Zen thing.

                          Enjoy.

                          1. re: UnfilteredDregs

                            There's another thing going unmentioned. Smell and your sense thereof. When you go to a pho restaurant, you are served an aromatic liquid that is a jolt from what you've been smelling/tasting all day. When you make it at home, simmering it for hours, you've progressively dulled your senses. I'd do as UnfilteredDregs recommends: leave your stock alone, don't hang out in the kitchen, let your nose smell something else for awhile.

                            1. re: fame da lupo

                              Yup, exactly...

                              I liken it to mixing music...I've played guitar for 30 +/- years.

                              When you're intently concentrating on a mix you're ears fatigue and they need a break or you'll begin to overcompensate for the fatigued sense.

                              You end you'll be chasing your tail, far away from the intended result.

                              Same happens with the nose & palette. Another point is to have something with which to cleanse your palette when tasting.

                            2. re: UnfilteredDregs

                              Yup I second that stocks can definitely be overcooked. The more you cook a stock, the more collagens are melted and more minerals extracted, but more volatile or fragileflavor components (which is important since aroma comprises the vast majority of what flavor is) are evaporated into the air or broken down. Pho restaurant cooks will always refresh their stocks with aromatic components before serving

                          2. re: c oliver

                            What a good recipe. I look forward to trying it soon.

                            1. re: docfood

                              I hope you enjoy. It's the only recipe for it I've ever made and I find it perfect so have no desire to tinker around with it. I did do something non-pho-ish to it once. Our daughter was visiting and loves pho but she was "large with child" and wasn't too keen eating on rare beef. I made some little (marble size) meatballs that I cooked in a skillet. When assembling the bowls, she got those and we did too. It was quite tasty and I have done it a time or to since.

                            2. re: c oliver

                              Andrea rules! Also terribly fond of the dumpling book.

                              1. re: NOLA_Pam

                                A couple of weeks ago I went down to San Francisco and took an Asian dumplings class from her. So great! And I've been making dumplings since and having success :)

                            3. from the CH archives. i remember this as a incredibly informative thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/285518 (that convinced me that i'd never actually try to make my own). good luck!

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: rose water

                                This has to be one of the easiest thing I make. And the results are spectacular. I can say that cause it's not MY recipe. Since I cook and freeze the broth, with a quick trip to the grocery for the accoutrements, it's super easy. I hope you'll reconsider.

                                1. re: rose water

                                  Wow! Great addition to the discussion. A couple of things to try that are different and were bothering me. And once again, a recipe that only simmers for a few hours. Maybe there's hope that there's an alternative to boatloads of MSG after all.

                                2. "excrete their personality"

                                  :)

                                  1. Have you tried the recipe from the Steamy Kitchen blog?

                                    I tried her chicken pho broth recipe. It was the best one I've tried and the closest to a restaurant quality broth.

                                    1. Could you describe what you find missing? Is it a matter of flavor profile? Broth texture? Ingredients texture/flavor?

                                      I myself think that the broth is the key thing with Pho, and crucial steps therefore involve the right base ingredients: good water, plenty of bones without skimping on the meaty ones (not just marrow bones but also a goodly portion of shanks, oxtails, whatever); parboiling and then starting with fresh water to remove proteins that would cloud your broth.

                                      Also, ake sure you're not over-toasting your spices. They are toasted as soon as you gain their aromas (they should keep rather than excrete their personality!), so don't leave them in the pan.

                                      1. Not to hijack...but, the broth: "To be Clear or Not to be Clear?

                                        I've heard from many that the best phos they've had are murky; even redolent with fat.

                                        That makes sense to me simply because in order for the marrow to incorporate it emulsifies with the broth. I prefer to always de-fat a broth. When it's done the fat has done it's job and only serves to smear the flavor IMO.

                                        The end product, after skimming and filtering, being not completely opaque, it does have a transparency, but certainly not crystal clear as a consomme.

                                        What's the consensus here?

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: UnfilteredDregs

                                          About "murky," a further issue (addressed typically in parboiling, rinsing, and starting with new water) is the so-called "scum" that rises early on in the simmering of a protein-rich stock (beans, too).

                                          It's mostly proteins rather than fat, and all that can be stirred back in with no harm and (so far as I know) little change to flavor, but it will make for a somewhat less clear final stock.

                                          I've never heard whether anyone's established that flavor is enhanced or compromised by leaving the scum in. In any case, the scum tends to dissolve in due course and isn't so visible as such in finished stock.

                                          1. re: Bada Bing

                                            I parboil, rinse, etc..and it remains clear for the most part...but when the smell and flavor shows up, it's past clear.

                                            Translucent, not opaque, but not consomme clear like what is seen in so many photographs.

                                            I think it's just the nature of brown stocks. It takes so much more time for them to develop, versus a chicken stock, that by the time they're really happening a great deal of the proteins have emulsified.

                                            I'm going to clarify mine in about 20 minutes...but I need to play with quantities more to see if I can retain better clarity over the course of the cooking time.

                                            1. re: UnfilteredDregs

                                              If you're really after clarity, maybe strain with layered cheesecloth? I use a chinois strainer, and that's good enough for me, but I don't really strive for maximum clarity,

                                              1. re: Bada Bing

                                                Oh, I do all that if I want crystal clear clarity; it's not that I don't know how...

                                                What gets my goat is all these folks who seem to achieve the same with pho, without going through all the classic steps required to get a clear beef broth.

                                                The only way I see achieving that is if I don't let the broth develop to it's full potential...That's why I raised the question.

                                                I'm of the opinion that a beef broth/stock isn't fully developed if it has consomme like clarity, without ever being clarified.

                                        2. Tonight's Pho!