Phở bò is Việt Nam’s most famous dish, so I almost didn’t try it. It’s unfair to judge a country by its iconic foods—you wouldn't believe how hard it was to convince Koreans that McDonald's isn’t a summation of American culture. But in the end, I had to cave. Phở, Vietnamese beef noodle soup, deserves it's popularity. It’s just that good. But you have to know how to order it. While phở bò looks like “foe bow,” it's actually pronounced “fuh baw.”
Remember, accents are very important in the Vietnamese language. Phở should roll down and back up, like this. Bò simply falls. You can get away with just saying phở, though, since bò (beef) usually comes standard.
This soup originated in northern Việt Nam, though nowadays it’s eaten across the country. Saigon’s version is sweet with lots of fresh herbs. Hanoi’s broth reputedly has a cleaner, deeper flavor. But wherever you eat it, phở should be a rich soup with rice noodles and slices of raw or cooked beef. In Saigon it comes with bean sprouts, herbs, lime wedges, brown sauce, orange sauce, and chili peppers. Add what you like (I recommend sprouts, Thai basil, lime, and brown sauce), stir, and chow down.
Some restaurants also serve phở gà, chicken noodle soup. To me, it tastes just like homemade chicken soup in the States. Awfully good, but I’m a beef girl at heart.
Phở is primarily a breakfast food. For westerners, this takes some mental readjustment. It is, however, an adjustment worth making. Many upscale phở joints—ones with walls and solid tables—serve beef soup around the clock. There are even a few fast food restaurants, like Phở Hùng. But if you want good street phở, you’d better get up early.
Our favorite is a cheap mom-and-pop stand near Gia Định Park. It’s just a cart surrounded by metal tables, but it’s ALWAYS packed.* Mom cooks, Dad serves, and Little Girl sits among the customers eating porridge and playing with a scrappy puppy. You can get a giant bowl of phở bò for 90 cents. A baguette to dip in the broth is 13 cents more. In true Saigon style, the soup is both sweet and salty. We get different kinds of beef every time—sometimes pink shreds that cook in the broth, sometimes roasted brisket or meat balls. This isn’t by design; my Vietnamese is still largely incoherent, so Mom freestyles. The stand closes when she runs out of broth.
Just down the block is another phở place with two walls and multiple servers, so you know it’s pretty fancy. The soup costs three times as much, but it does come with a pig’s ear in it. It’s also super popular, though I don’t think it's as good as Mom’s.
It's the broth that makes the phở. The basic recipe involves oxtail and marrow bones, simmered with charred onions, fish sauce, and an assortment of spices like cinnamon, coriander, and anise. It can take anywhere from 4 to 10 hours to make, and it's definitely the star of the bowl.
Vietnamese recipes tend to be intricate and time-consuming. This is one reason street food is so popular. It’s much cheaper (and less hassle) to buy phở than make it at home. And even if we tried, we’d never out-cook a woman who serves it daily to sell-out crowds. So for us, phở will remain specifically a taste of Việt Nam.
*This is the first and most important sign of a good street stand.