Phở Just Down the Street – 1 of 365

Pho Bo - Beef Soup

Domino’s Pizza, KFC, Pho 24, Highlands Coffee and even an American style diner line the ground floor of my Saigon apartment tower and all this is just an elevator ride or delivery request phone call away.  Not that I don’t enjoy the Two For Tuesday promotion at Domino’s that delivers buy one get one free large pizzas right to my door in 30 minutes or less, but I am after all on the quest for all things local here.  Sorry Domino’s, your pizza tastes the same in Saigon or Saginaw, and I need a meal that shows we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

I challenge anyone to find a better introduction to Vietnamese street cuisine than a steaming bowl of pho, or phở to be local and proper.  Finding one in Saigon or anywhere for that matter seems to definitely be a mission possible given the sheer volume of places.  I am not looking for the “McPho” of Pho 24 as Lonely Planet calls it right there in my building, but a bowl laid out in a storefront that would bring shudders to the Fulton County Department of Health.  I want a bowl from a place whose score of -21 out of a 100 on the health rating back home would splash its name all over the local news for all the wrong reasons. Yes, I want that liberal dose of street cred grime served up alongside my bowl of piping hot pho.

Nondescript Home of a Great Bowl of Pho

One of my coworkers passed on a tip that a decent pho can be had for one dollar in a strip of gritty tin roofed concrete structures whose open storefronts sprawl along Nguyen Huu Canh Street.  Pho seems to fuel this country breakfast, lunch, dinner and all times in between and “Pho Bac Hai Ha Noi” is my friend’s recommendation here in the Binh Thanh district just a block down from our Western oasis.

Keep in mind eating local can overload the senses the first few times of anyone fresh out of a country that prides itself on health inspections and sanitation.  Indeed, I think I have built up an immunity one meal at a time over here that no vaccination on earth could ever dream of providing.  An iron stomach and a blind eye to the kitchen and chef are all one needs to settle into the street food scene over here.  Let us begin our first meal of 365 more to come with a glorious bowl of pho.

My friends and I settled onto flimsy plastic chairs (definitely not load tested for ample American asses) doubling as chairs. Ordering a few bowls of Pho Bo (meat soup) in broken Vietnamese set the assembly line in motion, and I watched Step One as Soup Man barehandedly pulled meat out of a container atop a dirty table.  He laid the red strips of flesh out on a metal counter and chopped the hell out of them with a knife that only seconds before had been wiped “clean” with a rag well beyond its expiry date.

Pho With All The Trimmings

Step Two is simply plucking cooked rice noodles from a bag using raw meat covered hands and throwing these gleaming white slivers of pasta into a tiny strainer.  Luckily the strainer and contents take a plunge into boiling water, but I assume any latent bacteria from Step One will only succumb to other horrors that probably linger in that giant vat.

Step Three combines the reheated noodles, broth, chopped herbs, and onions in a giant white bowl.  The chopped raw meat thrown on top now cooks in the near boiling liquid as it is served tableside.  A tub of fresh herbs wet with tap water arrives with the pho and I tried breaking off pieces that were free of tapwater residue.  I know deep down the damage from the tap water rinse is already done whether dry or not, and luckily living here gives us immunity against small amounts of the water. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

Step Four is to add table condiments such as vinegar from a dirty plastic container and hot sauce out of a plastic squeeze bottle so old and crusty there is no way we can even say it’s sanitary.  I won’t even pretend I could identify the ingredients making up the clear brown broth as I greedily downed it, but I can safely list the aforementioned garnishes..fresh herbs such as mint, Thai basil, and cilantro along with bean sprouts, limes, sliced chili peppers add some subtle flavors to the raw beef slowly losing its redness in the piping hot liquid.

I later learned that the pho base is normally onions and ginger first charred and then smashed before being added to the water.  Chicken or meat bones simmer with star anise, cinnamon and whatever else the cook has in his or her arsenal to bring us the deliciousness dished up from one end of this seahorse shaped country to the other.

The final and most important step…Enjoying one of the most delicious bowls of Pho I have ever had in Vietnam amidst our run down surroundings and dirty floors.  I’ve been living in Vietnam where my standards have dropped to about nothing and this is my new normal.  For sure the uninitiated fresh off the plane from America would be nervous as hell entering such a shop. but this is my world and these places are our domain.

Pho is as ubiquitous to Vietnam as Coca Cola and french fries are to America, but just what is it?  I have saved you the time of doing your own Googling and here is a brief run down.  I found all this on the internet so of course it must be true.  A May 29, 2010 article from the Taipei Times suggests that pho may not even be a Vietnamese word but rather from the French Pot au Feu.  Blasphemy really when you think about it.  How can something so Vietnamese have origins in the colonial past?  Feu and Pho are pronounced similarly and thus a bowl of broth entered both the lexicon and daily diet.

Ok, so phở may have some French in its roots, but my bowl of phở bò today down the street in the shadow of KFC and Domino’s is proudly Vietnamese.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

One Comment on “Phở Just Down the Street – 1 of 365”

  1. anhcute
    April 22, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    By the way I hope some day you would try on pho Huong Bac – 490 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Q.3, TP.HCM… Dear

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