Try these un-pho-gettable pho spots in and around Seattle. But don’t destroy the perfectly crafted broth while you’re at it.
You’re eating your pho all wrong.
You likely turn the broth into a cesspool of sriracha and hoisin sauce. You likely dump in so much basil and bean sprouts that you can’t see the broth under all that foliage.
Of course, no Soup Nazi will burst out of the kitchen to admonish you. The customer is always right. But your pho (pronounced “fuh”) will taste three times better if you eat it the way it’s intended.
The rule of thumb: Anything added to the broth “should not mask or change the flavor profile,” said Andrea Nguyen, an authority on Vietnamese cuisine and author of the upcoming “The Pho Cookbook” to be released next year.
The broth is the thing. At its best, it should glisten with a fatty sheen, likely from simmering in marrow bones.
It should have a subtle smoky, sweet tang — from the roasted onions and ginger.
It should have star anise, clove and/or Chinese cinnamon, but only hints. Like backup singers, they shouldn’t draw attention away from the star, the beef.
When the broth is perfectly crafted, you don’t need to add much. If you want to spice it up, drop in a few jalapeño slices, but never hoisin or sriracha. Those sauces are for dipping the meat. (That’s what the stack of dipping trays next to the napkin dispensers and chopsticks is for.)
The plate of garnishes? Go easy. They just add texture and aroma.
Charles Phan, chef of the most acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S., The Slanted Door in San Francisco, suggests sprinkling in a few herbs and bean sprouts as you eat. Otherwise, you end up with a bowl of black herbs and soft sprouts, defeating the purpose of the garnishes, Phan advises in his book, “Vietnamese Home Cooking.”
Crowding the bowl also cools down the broth. You want that fatty broth to stay piping hot while you work through the bowl. (Slurp. It cools down the broth in your mouth so you don’t burn your tongue.)
To soup up your bowl, try different cuts of meat — tendon, tripe, eye of round steak, meatballs — to get a range of flavors and textures.
Nguyen, who’s eaten pho across the country and in Vietnam for her book, describes her ideal bowl.
“The broth — it should be relatively clear. It should be fragrant. It should be hot. I don’t want the spices to hit me over my head … I like some fat. Sometimes when you leave a pho place, you can still taste the fat on your lips. That’s really nice.
“That’s a good bowl.”
Five bowls I like, in no particular order:
Pho Big Bowl
2248 N.W. Market St., (Ballard) Seattle; 206-588-1249
This is the best pho in Seattle for under six bucks — a light, clean broth that doesn’t have that heavy MSG or cloying taste found at cheap pho houses.
Aptly named, this Ballard soup house serves bowls that are one size larger than what you would usually get. Its small bowl of pho ($5.10) is the regular size at some restaurants, and the regular size costs just $5.90. Each order comes with a complimentary soda or mango pudding.
9828 15th Ave. S.W., (White Center) Seattle; 206-762-4699
It’s as close to perfect a bowl of pho as you can find anywhere in King County for about $9. The meatballs are firm. The fatty brisket is buttery. The noodles aren’t overcooked. That broth — it has a fatty sheen, but is not so rich that your palate is overwhelmed halfway into the bowl.
3300 Rainier Ave. S., (Rainier Valley) Seattle; 206-725-4418
1314 S. Jackson St., (Chinatown International District) Seattle; 206-323-4387
1809 Minor Ave., (Denny Triangle) Seattle; 206-621-8816 or thephobac.com
Ask your Vietnamese co-workers about the best pho in Seattle, and inevitably Pho Bac will be at or near the top of their lists.
The Pham family owns three Pho Bacs (in Rainier Valley, Little Saigon and the Denny Triangle) and a fourth called Pho Viet. In the Vietnamese community, folks are either devotees of the Rainier Valley spot or “The Boat,” as the Pho Bac in Little Saigon is called.
While both use 20 pounds of beef knuckles and marrow bones for every 5 gallons of broth, each tweaked the recipe differently.
The broth at the Rainier Valley spot is sweeter and smoother, while Little Saigon’s is full-bodied and savory. I prefer the former, but that’s a debate you never want to get into with another Vietnamese.
“Funny story,” said Khoa Pham, who runs the family business with his two sisters. “I have a customer who would come into The Boat a couple times in the morning. I have another customer I would see often at the Rainier Valley location when I drop by there later in the day. Then one Saturday, I see the two together eating pho with a bunch of kids. It turns out they’re married.” They rarely eat together because they’re adamant about which Pho Bac is better, he said.
550 12th Ave., (Central District) Seattle; 206-328-2030 or babarseattle.com
Owner Eric Banh serves the city’s most talked-about pho. Chefs around town swear by his oxtail pho. He’s working on a ramen-inspired variation, with roasted brisket, poached egg and caramelized shallots in a beef-pork broth that will be on the menu by the end of May.
His latest: Hanoi-style pho. Unlike the ubiquitous southern-style, the Hanoi style is salty with minimal toppings — here, just raw slices of Painted Hill eye of round steak with raw ginger and pickled Bird’s eye chili to punch up the broth.
14611 First Ave. S., Burien; 206-838-6020
The most aromatic on the list, this nuanced broth is sweet with a creamy finish. The Burien pho house is inconsistent, but when it’s on its game, no one makes a better broth.