Man vs. Pho
Today, I received an email from a reader by the initials of HB. She had read my posting on Pho Garden up in San Francisco, the proud host of the pho challenge. If you can eat this mammoth bowl of pho, your $22 bowl of pho is FREE. I did not realize just how big this bowl of pho was until HB emailed me these photos. Just look at it. Do the servers need a weightlifting belt just to haul this to the table? I think I see the hooves and horns of the cow in that bowl as well. Worth it?! Not in my opinion. But for an eating-challenger like this gentleman, it's worth the bragging rights and a well-deserved virtual high-five from me. Here's what HB wrote:
"I was witness to my boyfriend Brian completing the Pho Garden challenge last weekend. I originally saw your post with Pho Garden pics and of course had to send him the link since we are pho freaks and he recently discovered the world of eating challenges. He emailed the photos around and issued a challenge to his friends. 2 months later 3 challengers sat down to the huge bowls of boiling pho. Holy cow you should have seen the mixed emotions these guys went through in the span of 60 minutes while eating- fear, happiness, relief, denial, nausea, disgust. My boyfriend Brian was the only one to finish in 47 minutes and I have to admit that I've never been so proud! haha! So thanks for the idea and now this triumph will live on forever for us. Oh yeah, I wanted to mention that Brian said that initially he thought the pho was good, but that he seemed to be slowly blacking out while he ate and cannot remember the taste of a single piece of meat even though he ate 2 pounds. Pretty funny, right? Has this ever happened to you?"
Fear, happiness, relief, denial, nausea, disgust? Talk about an emotional meal. And no I have never had a euphoric, near-death experience from eating. Well maybe the f'd up shrimp I ate in Brazil that pained me for 3 days and earned me a 60-minute morphine ride at the hospital.
If you look carefully, the bottom of the bowl says "You did it!!!" Good thing it didn't say something like...
"Congrats, this was just the appetizer."
"Good job, the hospital is a few blocks down."
Thanks again to HB for the email and congrats to Brian.
Home » Posts filed under pho
I think some of the most difficult dilemmas in my life take place in a Vietnamese restaurant. Why does everything on the menu have to be so freaking tasty. I have tried a lot of things, but always stick to the standard pho. Just when I tell the server that I want something tasty like charbroiled pork over noodles (bun thit nuong), I end up retracting my order and getting the eye from the server. I'm just not able to shy away from it, like a needy little kid. And like most cooks with a passion for noodles, I've attempted to make my own beef pho for pride and merit. $40 and 6-8 hours later, I finally made my first soup. It tasted fine, but there was something missing, as there always seems to be with home-cooked food. Is it the boatload of MSG that goes into it? Is it the pair of chopsticks and soup spoon that need a pre-rinse with tea? Maybe the server's thumb that always seems to penetrate the scalding hot soup? Whether or not any of these factors actually affect the taste of a soup, it's just not the same. After that last time, I decided it would be less of a headache if I just coughed up a whopping $5.25 for a solid bowl of pho at Pho Filet in South El Monte or Pho Thanh Lich in Little Saigon – two places that I love at the moment.
But all of a sudden, I missed making soup from scratch. Something fast and something cheap. Something that doesn't hog up all the space in my Le Creuset. And Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (pho ga) comes to mind. How expensive was it to make 6-8 bowls? $10, if you already have the spices! Everyone has found their ideal beef pho, as the best ones seem to be very consistent. The slightest decrease in the amount of MSG and spices used can trigger off the food snobbiness. But with pho ga, as I've learned, there really isn't a standard, consistent taste – it's comfort food . With that in mind, you'll be happy to know that pho ga is not difficult to cook and you're free to get creative with it.
There is nothing more boring than chicken breast – dark meat for president. Instead of using chicken breast, I bought leg meat because it has more flavor. If you have to have breast meat, cut that thing in half, cross-section style – you'll be a much happier eater. Let's do this.
(1) Place all the chicken bones in a large pot filled with cold water. Bring to a boil, and let it roll vigorously for 10 minutes to really force out the impurities. Dump bones out into sink and make sure you rinse all the chicken bones. Set aside.
(2) If you skip this next step, you're missing the whole point of Vietnamese noodle soup. If you want your pho to compete with places on the Westside and Chinatown, then don't toast your spices – because they seriously can't seem to do things right. For this recipe, I used the following spice measurement, add more as needed:
10-12 star anise
2-2.5 tbsp. coriander seeds
1 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 whole cinnamon stick
This will yield a very strong anise and clove aroma. So cut down to half or completely omit ingredients if you're not fond of those flavors – I love it. Toast these in a dry pan on low heat for 2-3 minutes, careful not to burn the spices. When the aroma is apparent, turn off the heat and remove the spices from the pan. Tie up the spices in some cheesecloth and string.
(3) You'll be toasting the ginger and onions now, to wake up the flavors. Over the stove burner, turn it on high. Using tongs, set the onions and ginger on the burners. For the onions, I usually peel away the outer skin because I really want to punish those onions and make them sweat. Same applies to the ginger. You don't have to evenly char them, 60-75% is fine. Over cold water, remove any of the blackened parts.
(4) Add the bones, spices, onions, ginger, whole bulb of garlic (cross-sectioned to reveal the cloves of garlic) into the pot and fill it up with cold water. Bring to a boil and add some fish sauce to taste. The fish sauce is used to flavor the soup, not be the sole source of salinity. You should have a delicate hint of fish sauce. Once you've brought it to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer. Add a 1"-1.5" piece of rock sugar. This is crucial in giving pho that gentle sweetness. Regular sugar would be too harsh.
(5) After about 2 hours, you should test out your soup once more to dot the i's and cross the t's. After simmering for so long, you may need to add more water incase it becomes salty. Scoop out any impurities and get your scallions, green onions, white onions and herbs ready. Banh pho noodles are typically used (I like the Kim Tar brand but this one is good as well.) and I've had versions with thicker rice noodles used in hu tieu. To cook the noodles, bring some water to a boil and drop the noodles in for no more than FIVE SECONDS for al dente noodles. Serve with piping hot soup and a headband if you get worked up like I do when I eat noodles.
Jeni and I were really happy that this turned out well. It was very simple and to tell you the truth, I don't think you can really F this up. What I might do differently is reduce the amount of cloves – too strong. And I may actually use chicken breast versus leg meat because you need to have some texture – my leg meat was tasty, but obliterated from the simmering of course. And also, pho ga is best eaten the day you make it. The refridgeration process sucks the life out of the herbs. I left the spice bag in the soup and that made the clove aroma even stronger. Bleh. Enjoy and thanks for reading.
Last year was a great year for me and J. We traveled to Asia, Central America, Canada and Europe. We photographed some beautiful weddings and contributed some work to notable food and travel publications. I re-ignited my love for cooking because of a butcher shop owned by a husband and wife. We earned our scuba diving certification. I moved on from a painful layoff and discovered the joys of being a freelancer. Jeni left her hell-hole school and found her love for teaching at another institution. But most importantly, we started some friendships with people we would otherwise never meet, simply through the writing of food. I could write a whole posting, and I will one day, on the important people in our lives that continue to inspire us to write our blogs. But for this posting, I'm introducing you to a gentleman known as JD. Some of you may know him through his Twitter handle as Tricerapops – yes, he is a proud father of three adorable triplet girls. Completely decked out in Hello Kitty mafia gear. And he enjoys ranting about football and wine, wine and more wine.
Knowing how much J and I love noodles, we received an email from Tricerapops one day, inviting us to come over to his mom's house for some Vietnamese soup noodles. We didn't know him really nor have we met him in person and due to some conflicting schedules, we ended up postponing. But he continued to send us emails over a few months and finally one day, I gave him a call.
Me: "So your mom makes Vietnamese soup noodles?"
JD: "Yeah, she does it every few months and just opens up her house to anyone."
JD: "Yeah, she's been doing this for a long time?"
Me: "For no charge?"
JD: "None. This is what she enjoys doing. And today she has pho."
Me: "We're in there like swimwear."
So on a summer Saturday, J and I headed out to Echo Park to finally meet Tricerapops and eat some soup noodles. Not knowing what his mom likes, we stopped at a Vietnamese bakery and grabbed whatever looked tasty as a pre-thank you. I thought about durian since it's basically a Vietnamese narcotic, but my car would reek. We showed up to the house and we were greeted by JD. From his comments on past postings, we had a pretty good idea of his personality and character and, at that moment, it all came together. Jeni and I knew he was a good guy. Course he is. Who else would invite complete strangers to eat soup noodles at his own mom's place?
For me, there are two categories of pho. The first being the pho most of us will have – which is in a restaurant. We all have our favorite places and pretty much have a set drill on the customization of the perfect bowl of pho. The second being the pho I actually cherish the most – in a kitchen cooked by the hands of a Vietnamese woman. The pho will never taste the same from these categories as expected. At the commercial level, I've seen some kitchens with at least a dozen 3' x 2' stock pots that can serve a good 250-300 bowls. When you're boiling hundreds of pounds of beef bones for 8-10 hours overnight, you're extracting a deeper flavor unachievable at home. I've made pho before a few times and it is a long and arduous process that can still cost around $50-60 for a mere 6-8 bowls. Cough up the $5 elsewhere – it's not worth it if you're going for restaurant quality. But more importantly, the commercial pho will never be as "good" as the home-cooked pho because it misses the one ingredient that varies in every household: a mother's soul.
Growing up, my mom would make soups for us. The most popular being a borscht. Go to any Hong Kong-style cafe and you're likely to be served a watery, tepid version of the Eastern European staple favorite. But my mom added oxtail to it and it was homey. We of course ate it so often it was a staple. But I had a childhood friend that would ask for it every time he came over to our house. My mom never thought twice about making it. I then realized that he had also grown up with no father nor mother – raised only by his old grandma. He saw my mom as his. The last time I talked to him was in high school nearly 15 years ago and he asked if he could have a bowl of my mom's oxtail soup. He left for the Marines and I never heard from him again.
From the doorway, I could see JD's mom in the background peacefully gliding across the kitchen with her own "moves". Every cook has his "moves". Mine happens to involve crashing, bumping and possible injuries if you get too close to the stove and cutting board. And JD was right about this being a dining room turned cafeteria. The table had settings for eight, wine glasses that commemorated JD's numerous wine tastings and a mound of fresh bean sprouts and herbs. And of course, the usual suspects: Sriracha, hoisin sauce and chili sauce. This was basically a pho restaurant without the restaurant. No bean sprouts garnishing the floor, balled-up napkins or bad Karaoke videos blaring in the background. Which I actually like.
We greeted JD's mom and within a few seconds she did what most Asian mothers do - politely cut out the chit chatting, tell you to sit down and get ready to eat. JD poured us some wine. I looked over at Jeni and whispered to my wife: "J, she's the Noodle Mama!"
Indeed she is. Noodle Mama is Mrs. Dang and she grew up in Saigon cooking soup noodles for family and friends whenever she could. Her mother came from Hanoi and handed down the pho legacy. When she moved to Echo Park with her family, she continued to do her thing. On any given weekend, you would find friends, family, family friends, co-workers and even neighbors. At one point, she had be-friended a few people from the local Dream Center, which houses up to 500 people in need of rehabilitation, counseling and protection from the mean streets. JD told me she once blocked out a whole Saturday for his co-workers and had them make reservations anywhere from 9 am - 6 pm. Ha! I asked her if she wanted me to buy her one of those $150 neon pho signs to place in her window, in which she declined with a laugh. I actually thought about buying one to put in my front window just to see how many people would knock on my door. Jeni killed that dream pretty quickly.
I loved everything about the way Noodle Mama ran her "shop". She had her cilantro and onions chopped up nicely and stored in one of those Asian cookie buckets.
A take-out box filled with some beef meatballs (bo vien). One of my fave pho toppings.
A container of sliced beef brisket and shank (nam and chin) she made from hours of boiling – my go-to pho toppings.
I believe she had two large pots of beef broth going, enough to serve a good 18-24 bowls. Look at the color of the broth from nicely roasted bones and yellow onions.
Versus using a pot of hot water, she dipped the noodles in a separate pot of beef broth for that extra shot of beefiness.
And the final touch, a large scoop of soulful broth. I loved how she used a clear Pyrex microwave bowl. Made me feel like I was at the underground viewing level of Sea World, face and hands pressed tightly against the window for a closer look. You could see everything happening in the bowl. Jeni, look at the piece of rare beef being cooked – awesome!
Then she started to compile a bowl in this huge mixing bowl. I looked at the dining table. Okay, JD, JD's dad, JD's brother and sister all have one. Jeni has one. Except for me.
Me: "Mrs. Dang, that's not for me is it?"
Noodle Mama: "Yes! You eat!"
Me: "JD, she's kidding me right?"
JD: "Naw bro, that's all you. It's your first time here. Welcome to our house."
All of a sudden, I'm taken back to a posting I had written on the ridiculous pho challenge up in San Francisco, by a restaurant called Pho Garden. Read if you dare as I get nauseous just looking at the photos. I could wash my face in this mixing bowl if I wanted to. I sat down and Noodle Mama put the finishing touches and carefully walked the bowl over. She set it down and everyone laughed.
And how was it? Very tasty and homey, exactly the way I imagined it to be. There was no skimping going on as some pho restaurants will do. If you wanted more meat, you knew you could very well help yourself to it. All the fixings were there at your disposal. You know the food is good when everyone around you is busy eating and not saying a word. I had barely dented my noodles when Noodle Mama, as any mother would say, reminded me that I had to eat a second bowl. Jesus. This may be the place I lay to rest. In gluttonous happiness.
I've been to Noodle Mama's three times and have tried her pho and JD's favorite, bun rieu. She also makes bun bo hue, hu tieu and according to JD, a mean bowl of banh canh. Unfortunately, J and I may be seeing Noodle Mama less now that she is moving elsewhere and closing down her Echo Park "shop". Thank you to JD and Noodle Mama for the warm hospitality, noodles and friendship. It means a lot to us. It's my turn next to offer you a bowl of Chinese beef noodle soup.
Question: What is that one dish that you can't refuse when offered by your mom, aunt or grandma?
Question: What is that one dish that you can't refuse when offered by your mom, aunt or grandma?