Once I worked in a restaurant where simple, home-style pho simmered almost constantly in the back kitchen, and it wasn't even a Vietnamese place. The concept was San Francisco Cal-Med, but a prep cook named Lin, a refugee from Saigon, kept an impromptu pho going most mornings. Before the lunch rush, she'd ladle it into bowls and give them to her favorite line cooks.
Early most mornings, she lodged unpeeled onions and ginger in the grate above a raging gas register so they'd blister, shedding flecks of charred black skin like lighter-than-air fish scales. These roots went into a pot of water along with the trim from prepped carcasses chicken necks and bones, as well as various flesh scraps plus cilantro stems, bits of cinnamon stick, and star anise. When the broth was done she garnished it with what she could scavenge: shreds of the meat that'd cooked in it, linguine scored from the pasta station, torn-up mint and European basil, clams. Lin's pho wasn't a formal dish like bouillabaisse, but an ever-changing vehicle for snacking, as casual and fortifying as a bowl of cereal, only much, much better.
That's the thing about pho. It should be whatever you want it to be, a concentrated meat broth that serves as a matrix for all kinds of variations. Me, I go hardcore, without the welter of mung bean sprouts and herb leaves, the squirts of chile-garlic sauce and shiny hoisin paste. Good pho tastes fragrant even without Asian basil, with a sweetness that builds from the gradual rendering of the proteins concentrated in bones and meat fibers.
You can taste all of that sweetness and perfume in the beef broth at Pho 89, a San Pablo soup joint that opened earlier this year. It's a rangy, frigid storefront in the pinched corner between Maynila Bakery and San Pablo Supermarket. Before being drywalled off as a separate space, it housed the supermarket's Chinese deli. In pre-drywall days, neon script lured shoppers here with the promise of BBQ. The sign is dark now, along with a glass-walled bay of empty steam tables you can imagine full of red-glazed meats and gleaming, cornstarch-shiny stir-fries. But with an auspicious Vietnamese number in its name and a steady trickle of customers from nearby Contra Costa College showing up for sugary fruit-and-tapioca-pearl shakes, the restaurant must be hoping it can dispel the chill of weird-space mojo.
Pho 89's empty, rambling kitchen is capable of generating plenty of warmth, at least in its beef broth, the heart of any pho place. You taste the licorice buzz of star anise in your nose. It's the soup's guiding presence, dominating other aromatics (cinnamon, maybe cloves, and even cardamom) that you sense more than taste. And it delivers just enough plausible sweetness there's probably dissolved rock sugar in the broth, but that doesn't squelch the star anise's radiant sweetness. It's balanced.
In any meat broth, aromatics soothe the grosser animal elements. Here, the star anise classes it up. The texture is suave, too, with a weight that feels faintly chewy, what we food writers call good mouthfeel. There's a fine, shiny bloom of fat globules on the surface. On each visit it was only a little murky.
Pho 89's other stuff, the combinations of meaty garnishes that rest on foundations of thin rice noodles, is good, too. Number 12 the menu lists it as the sum of its parts: tai, nam, gau, gan, sach lets you linger over almost every lovely facet of carnivorousness Pho 89 has to offer. Except, of course, for bo vien, its spongy, garlicky beef balls, stiff and pillow-shaped like boiled chicken livers. Get those in number 10, the meat lover's grand slam, dac biet bo vien.
Tai, raw top round slices, was what it should be, uniformly thin and gristle-free, with a scant marbling of fat. More texture than taste, it's always kind of insipid on its own, which is why it should be combined with gan, boiled brisket. At Pho 89 the thin, fat-capped brisket slices were so full-on meaty they tasted almost dirty. A good dirty, like sticky, tallowy roast beef drippings. Tripe, sach, was lacy and delicate, a shimmer of thin, white strips connected by thicker membrane, crunchy and lightly organlike. Neutral-tasting gan, tendon, almost dissolved as we chewed it, dispersing like melted gelatin. It upped the broth's unctuous factor. The only disappointment was the nam, boiled flank steak, which was dry and flavorless. Plus it made our lips feel greasy.
The restaurant makes a tasty duck soup, an apparently perpetual offering called duck egg noodle soup on the specials board. There should really be a hyphen between "egg" and "noodle," since you won't find any duck eggs here. Just a big bowl of chicken broth, a stiff tangle of yellow egg noodles, and a whole roast duck leg. The bird carried the whole dish. Flavored with aromatic five-spice powder, its skin lacquered with dark soy, the gray, stringy meat was soft and delicious. The kitchen had scraped away the fat between skin and flesh, a nice touch, and there were chewy black mushroom caps and crisp leaves of bok choy. It's a southern Chinese dish, except for slivers of dark-fried shallot dispersing tannic sweetness throughout the soup, a taste Vietnamese down to the bone.
Good thing it had strong flavors, since in more delicate soups that chicken broth lost any illusion of tasty. In number 2, pho ga nuong, the broth seemed oversalted, with a funky ammonia aura that haunted it like the taint of sour. We couldn't stop thinking of a cleaning rag. A shame, since the soup's firm pieces of barbecued chicken thigh were almost good enough to redeem it. With a numbing spiciness from white pepper and the hint of fish sauce, they tasted big and meaty. We were breathing the golden, sulfury taste of browned shallot in our sinuses, but it wasn't enough to gild the memory of troubled broth.
Mi dac biet, the super-jam session of egg-noodle pho, had problems beyond the chicken broth. Slices of peppery, fishy-tasting fish cake mingled with firm, bland fish balls, gray clumps of unseasoned ground pork, and crisp pink shrimp. It would have been a nice little mosaic of textures, if not for the tough slices of roast pork and boiled chicken breast. They turned potentially interesting into terminally clunky.
So the lesson is not to veer too far from pho bo, Pho 89's beef soups. And with more than a dozen variations it shouldn't be hard to get a bowl exactly how you like it, as long as you have a hankering for meaty. Oh, and promise you'll take a few tastes of pure broth before piling on every condiment on the table.
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