Things to know when you go for pho.
There are two strong basic styles of pho: Northern (pho bac) and Southern (pho nam). To ask which is better is like asking whether Serena or Martina is the greatest tennis player of all time: there is no right answer, and damned if someone tries to tell you that your choice is wrong. Northern-style pho is the OG; the soup, after all, was born in the Northern part of Vietnam. In its original form, pho is a simple, even austere, affair, with flat, wide noodles and a clean, savory broth unadorned save for scallions, onions, and slices of beef.
When Vietnam was partitioned into two states in 1954, Northerners who preferred not to live under Communist rule moved to the South, and with them went pho. Once established in cities like Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), pho took on characteristics of the region’s food and culture. Bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, sawtooth herb, lime, and hoisin became part of the experience; the broth became sweeter; the noodles, thinner.
Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, pho has migrated all over the world. And wherever you find pho, you’ll find it has absorbed the flavors and energy of its environment. Even in Vietnam, pho is kinetic; over the last forty years, the soup has transformed as the country has, incorporating different types and grades of meat as they’ve become available. Geography, combined with the whims of individual chefs, make for a dish that has countless variations: gio bo (beef sausage) is a pho add-in at some restaurants in suburban Melbourne, for example, but that’s not an option too common elsewhere. There are Maine lobsters in bowls of pho in Las Vegas; pin (pizzle) and thit nuong (grilled pork) are pho add-ins at some spots in California; various chefs over the years have tinkered with foie gras pho to varying degrees of success.
It’d be impossible to capture all the microregional iterations of worldwide pho; instead, here are the most established versions of the soup.
Standard-issue bowls in Vietnam are small enough to wrap two hands around, certainly smaller than most bowls in the States. In fact, at some pho restaurants in Canada, Taiwan, and Vietnam, “California” pho indicates an exceptionally large portion size.
BANH PHO (Rice noodles)
There are three types of banh pho. The first is a dry, packaged version. The second are semifresh noodles that require refrigeration; these have a chewy bite and are what most pho restaurants use. And there are noodles that are fresher still, delicate and ideal for slurping, but intended to be consumed the day they’re made. You’ll find these super fresh noodles in delis and markets in areas with large Vietnamese populations; in those same communities, pho restaurants offer the noodles as banh pho tuoi. And even if you don’t see them on the menu, it doesn’t hurt to ask: some restaurants have banh pho tuoi available only upon request.
PHO BO (Beef pho)
Pho bo broth is made by slowly simmering beef bones with charred onions and ginger, and spices— cinnamon, star anise, cloves, black cardamom. It’s seasoned with salt and fish sauce. A good broth is clear and amber in color.
From there, pho bo is greatly customizable. Some places offer an especially fatty broth (nuoc beo) or an especially lean one (nuoc trong), or one with some added bone marrow. Most offer a selection of meats as toppings, which may include:
Gau (Fatty brisket)
Simmered in the pho broth until tender, the brisket is thinly sliced and shingled on the noodles. The fat of the brisket absorbs the flavors of broth exceptionally well.
Flank steak can be cooked low and slow, or sliced thin and dunked in the hot broth to cook it quickly just before serving. It’s the cut to order if you want a relatively light bowl of pho.
A long simmer transforms beef tendon from fibrous connective tissue into a lovely and gelatinous addition to a hot bowl of pho.
Long, thin strips of book tripe add chewiness and crunch to a bowl of pho, but not much flavor.
Bo vien (Meatballs)
Bo vien are beef balls—they’re dense, chewy, grayish in color, studded with little bits of tendon, and squeak when you bite into them. Skewered and grilled, they’re a popular street snack in Vietnam, as well as a popular option in egg-noodle soups (mi) and, of course, in pho. In Southern style pho restaurants—which would be most restaurants in the U.S.—there will be a stack of small dipping plates on the table. Lift one out, fill half with hoisin sauce, half with chili-garlic sauce. Mix the two sauces if you want. Dip the bo vien in the mix before eating. Slurp some noodles for a proper mouthful.
Bo Tai/Bo Chin (Rare/well-done beef)
The words tai and chin refer to cooking methods (tai means “rare”; chin, “well-done”) and not any particular cut of beef, although in a pho restaurant, these options refer to a lean cut of meat (usually eye of round), sliced paper-thin and offered blood red or cooked gray. At some restaurants, you can request the beef be served separately, raw, so you can cook it in the hot broth to your desired level of tai or chin. And, as pho is ever so adaptable, restaurants now offer all sorts of upgrades to their routine tai/chin, including:
In the densest, most competitive pho districts, filet mignon has become a standard offering.
From the toniest restaurants in Hanoi to the grungiest strip malls of the San Gabriel Valley, the current luxury upgrade of choice is Wagyu and Kobe beef.
Once reserved for special occasions, veal has become a topping for pho in Vietnamese enclaves like Houston and San Jose. The veal is presented rare, along with a ginger-hoisin dipping sauce.
Duoi bo (Oxtail)
A pho broth made with oxtail is extra rich and flavor ful. Sometimes the restaurant will include some shredded meat from the bones or a hunk or two of oxtail bobbing in the soup.
Bo sot vang (Beef in red wine)
Classical French cooking makes its way into pho with bo sot vang. Tender red-wine-braised beef shanks top bowls of noodles, and in some instances color the entire broth red.
DAC BIET (House special)
The bowl for the diner who wants a little bit of everything, pho dac biet combines a variety of beef cuts for a riot of textures and flavors. A popular dac biet combination is steak, tripe, tendon, brisket, and flank.
PHO GA (Chicken pho)
Chicken pho broth is made of chicken bones, simmered with charred onions and ginger. Pho ga is usually lighterbodied and less assertively spiced than its beef counterpart, though some shops will add the same aromatics used in beef pho. The most common cuts of meat offered are breast (uc) and thighs (dui); chicken pho specialists also offer wings (canh), giblets (long), and eggs (trung—the eggs are usually quail, but some places have unlaid hen eggs). Pho ga is usually served with ginger dipping sauce. At some pho ga shops, you also can order a Chinese doughnut on the side; it will arrive alongside the soup whole or cut in half for your dipping pleasure.
PHO KHO (Dry pho)
Pho kho comes from Gia Lai, a province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It’s a deconstructed bowl of pho, with broth and noodles served separately. The noodles are usually dressed in a light soy sauce. Some restaurants offer dry pho bo, but it’s far more common at pho ga restaurants, where the chicken may be sautéed before being piled into your noodle bowl. There is no wrong way to eat this: spoon some broth over the noodles, or dip the noodles in the broth like tsukemen.
PHO HAI SAN (Seafood pho)
Seafood pho can be made with the same stock used for beef pho, but is often made with anything from vegetables to seafood to chicken bones, then topped with various seafood: prawns, squid, scallops, and fish balls and cakes. In the Gulf Coast states, Vietnamese-style crawfish boils and pho collide in Vietnamese-Cajun-spiced pho with crawfish and andouille sausage. Chains like LA Crawfish have popularized seafood pho in cities like Houston, and it’s spreading fast.
PHO CHAY (Vegetarian pho)
Vietnam has a large Buddhist population, so vegetarian pho is fairly common at stalls throughout the country. Monks, after all, like pho too. Generally, vegetarian pho broth is made with a variety of fruits and vegetables, like daikon, apples, Asian pears, carrots, and mushrooms, with the spices found in beef pho occasionally thrown in as well. The toppings vary widely, though more mushrooms are usually involved. And there probably will be tofu (dau hu).