Pho connoisseur Andrea Nguyen comes to Seattle to talk that beloved Vietnamese soup and also to check out our pho game.
Goodness knows we have enough pho places these days. We can’t seem to get enough of them. (Two of the most-read food stories in the Seattle Times last year were about pho: Five best places for pho and Our guide to pho.)
Recently, we caught up with Andrea Nguyen, author of “The Pho Cookbook,” ($22, Ten Speed Press), the definitive account of the Vietnamese comfort food that has become as common in Seattle as teriyaki joints. Nguyen, an authority on Vietnamese cooking, will be at the Book Larder in Fremont “on 4/11 to give the 411 on pho,” she emailed.
The author also wants to sample all the pho shops while trotting around Seattle next week. Where should she go? She wants your pho recommendations. Send her your suggestion in the comment box below.
We chatted with California-based author briefly before her flight to Seattle:
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Q: What pho places have you been to or hope to hit while you’re in Seattle?
A: . I’ve got Pho Bac (the one shaped like a boat on Jackson Street) on my hit list for this upcoming trip. Ba Bar’s pho is always solid; I was skeptical, but the ramen pho there works. I’d love to get suggestions from Seattle pho fans.
Q: Your ideal bowl of pho?
A: For beef pho, I really like a bowl with only cooked meat — fatty brisket, tendon and maybe some meatballs. The cooked beef offers up a lot of the pho flavor because they’ve cooked it in the broth, or in the case of the meatball, warmed in it. My ideal broth leans on the savory side, with some fat. Pho fat is where it’s at. Too lean of a bowl and pho is boring. If I have rare steak in the bowl, I like a marbly, beef cut, like tri-tip steak; I’m not a fan of eye of round, which a lot of pho shops use. After finishing the pho bo, I hope the flavor lingers on my lips. That’s the mark of a good pho experience.
Q: A controversial topic here: Tell folks why they shouldn’t squirt sriracha and hoisin into the broth. And how sriracha and hoisin should be used in pho.
A: Good pho simmers for hours; its flavors are nuanced and beguiling. Squirting sriracha and/or hoisin into the bowl obliterates any complexity. I’m in favor of putting those sauces in a little dish — do a yin-yang pattern, if you like — and dipping the meatballs or sliced beef into them to pick up sweet-salty heat. That said, I’ve seen older Vietnamese add those condiments into their bowls and turn them mahogany. I wonder what their taste buds are like, but I remind myself that pho is the ultimate have-it-your-way food.
Q: Pho gets treated differently than ramen. Folks won’t complain about a $16 bowl of ramen, but all hell breaks out if you charge $14 for pho in Seattle. Why is that?
A: Japan’s food culture is built upon respect, quality and craftsmanship. As a result, there’s greater appreciation for and understanding about ramen. Pho, on the other hand, is understood as a value food. Many Vietnamese pho shops compete on quantity and price. As a result, diners talk about a good pho experience as one in which they get giant bowls for a low price. When it comes to pho, it’s quantity over quality. The better pho shops charge more. When pho is cheap, I wonder who is paying the price. As my mom says, “Tiền nào của nấy.” You get what you pay for.
Q: What’s up with pho and all the numbers? Why does it seem like one out of every two pho places have numbers in their names like pho 99 or pho (pick a number)?
A: Pho shop names can mean many things. Maybe it wants to be the best (Pho No. 1). Or, perhaps the shop is signalling the year it opened (Pho 79). Some owners give nods to historic years such as 1954, when Vietnam split into two countries, or 1975, when people fled the Communist takeover. Sometimes it’s someone’s lucky number.