Do you ever get a craving for pho? I do, especially when I manifest symptoms of heartbreak, flu, hangover, or existential malaise. My dentist's offices are three doors down from a great little pho restaurant, so I've also found the Vietnamese beef noodle soup an excellent tonic for cavities, crowns, and aggressive periodontal treatment.
Though suffering from none of these ailments, last week I looked over my to-review spreadsheet and discovered that it had been more than a year since I had reviewed a pho parlor. As far as I'm concerned, pho -- pronounced fuh, with a tone that several hours of Berlitz tapes have not taught me to replicate -- is on par with miso soup, chicken noodle soup, and beer as mother's milk for adults.
In short, pho bo is a specialty of Hanoi, with rice noodles and various cuts of beef in a clear (or cloudy) broth flavored with a haunting, intoxicating confluence of roasted shallots, anise, ginger, and cinnamon. It's primarily a breakfast and lunch dish, though nobody will prevent you from eating it at dinner as well. Most of Oakland's pho restaurants are clustered in Chinatown and the northerly stretches of International Boulevard. Many are packed at lunch and closed by the early evening.
A quick primer on eating your pho: You can choose what kinds of beef you want in your soup, but I'd recommend that you get, or learn to love, the dac biet (house specialty) bowl with everything. The raw, lean steak that cooks in the broth looks cool, but it's nowhere near as fun as the soft, fatty brisket and flank steak; the crunchy, nobbly book tripe (so-called because it contains a lot of "pages" held together by an outer strip); and, best of all, the tendon. When it's properly cooked, tendon is the most voluptuous, silky part of the cow -- strips of translucent collagen with little taste but the most marvelous texture.
When you get your bowl, tear up all the little leaves that come on the side plate, add a big handful of bean sprouts, and carefully, carefully, stir everything with your spoon and chopsticks. Whether you jalapeño or lime your soup is up to you and the broth. If you spritz a lot of sriracha sauce in the bowl, however, as even Vietnamese people do, you obliterate the magical flavor of the broth. The sriracha is only good for pouring into the tiny plastic dishes that you'll find on the table, along with some hoisin sauce. Use this as a dipping sauce for the blandest bits of beef.
Now slurp your noodles. Head over the bowl, please. No one who doesn't know you intimately wants to watch you dribble broth all over your shirt.
On last week's expedition, I headed to three pho restaurants in three days, one well known, two others recommended to me by pho aficionado Ken Stutz of Stutz Olive Oil. To start, I brought a couple friends to the restaurant many Oaklanders herald as the gold standard: Pho 84. I had some lovely food there, but I'd have to give its eponymous soup a B.
Why? The rice noodles were perfect, chewy and not overcooked. The flank steak was fatless and velvety -- the best I've yet had anywhere -- and their beef balls and steak were perfectly respectable. However, the broth, though rich and almost livery, wasn't aromatic enough. And the big hunks of tendon were undercooked, which left them tough and a little slimy.
Unlike many Vietnamese noodle shops, Pho 84's service was great -- and with pitchers of ice water on every table and comments like "vegetarian but not vegan dishes" on the menu, they're used to serving Westerners. A couple of the other dishes we tried impressed me: a bright, lime-drenched shrimp and cabbage salad; crisp-tender imperial rolls with a complex chicken-crab filling; and spicy glazed chicken served over spinach leaves, with a tiny bowl of lemon juice and pepper that amplified the flavor a couple hundred decibels. Some boringly fresh vegetables in a bowl of vegetable rice-noodle soup tasted healthy; luckily, the stunning chicken-shrimp stock they were cooked in, which was flavored with lots of nutty roasted shallots, didn't.
What you think about Lan Huong, at 12th Street and 8th Avenue, depends on your criteria. If you're a decor person -- and there's no real shame in being one, I suppose -- your tastes better run to the funky, because the ramshackle, round restaurant is primarily done up in Formica and chipped linoleum.
Now, if you value interesting food above petty concerns like decor or service, the restaurant gets much more enticing. Lan Huong specializes in many, many dishes, from pho to banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), rice porridge, and curries. Half are listed on the wall in Vietnamese only, and you have to examine the specials board with your bilingual menu in hand to pick out enough words to translate the dishes scrawled on it. The drinks case is a foodie's delight: soursop soda, young coconut juice, grass jelly.
With so many specialties, something has to suffer. Unfortunately, it's the pho -- thin broth, tasteless brisket, tough tendon. Definitely C-grade. However, I was pleased to find rau ram, a sort of astringent, amped-up cilantro, on the plate of Thai basil, limes, and bean sprouts. A duck soup with cellophane noodles didn't fare much better than the pho; its chicken-stock broth had no character. Nor did the bony chunks of duck. Once we dumped in the accompanying bowl of a sweet-tart lemongrass-ginger puree and squeezed a couple of limes into the soup, things perked up.
We had started off with a top-drawer vegetarian crepe, a papery, curried rice-flour crepe filled with tofu, bean sprouts, and fungus. You eat bites of the crepe wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves with mint leaves and a soy-based sauce, so it becomes a confabulation of cool and hot, savory and vegetal. I also took home a roast pork sandwich for snacking, and was impressed with the crusty French roll, the tender pork, and the lightly pickled carrots and daikon inside.
So I can't give Lan Huong a thumbs-up on the pho, but I'm headed back once I turn in this article to satisfy my curiosity about the restaurant's rice porridge and curried goat. I won't sleep soundly until I do.
After two near disappointments, the moment I opened Pho Ao Sen's menu on day three I sighed in relief. Instead of offering a culinary tour of Vietnam, this restaurant just southeast of Lake Merritt sticks to the basics: beef noodle soup (from the north), seafood noodle soup (from the south), cold noodles, and rice plates.
All of which they do justice to, adding little touches that I didn't anticipate. My combo rice plate came with a proper egg and noodle cake, a sort of cheeseless frittata studded with pork and laced together with rice noodles. Chewy shreds of shredded pork skin picked up the toastiness of the roasted rice flour they were tossed with. And the main feature, a salty-sweet marinated pork chop, was amazing, topped with little bits of deep-fried pork belly and flash-fried scallions. Nuoc cham (fish sauce) and pickled cabbage enlivened the meat with their sweet-tart flavors.
Finally, I got pho I was hoping for. Its clear, unified flavors would have seemed artless had I not tried two other bowls over the preceding days. Along with the Thai basil and bean sprouts, I tossed in a couple of leaves of a spiky-leaved plant, tasting like Thai basil and soap, which I don't encounter very often. I'd have to assign an A- to Pho An's soup just because the brisket was a little fatty and the tendon too tough. (I realize I'm not selling the squeamish on tendon. If you're interested, try it at Pho Hoa Lao at International and 7th Avenue.)
As the soup sits and the flavor of the herbs and beef permeate the broth, it just gets better, so even after I've had my fill of noodles I can't stop sipping till the bowl is dry. Better than Tylenol, cheaper than therapy.
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