A little over a year ago, I became addicted to pho. If you haven’t had it, you’ve probably at least seen pretty pictures of it on Instagram or passed some of the many Vietnamese restaurants in Charlotte that serve this dish.
But what is pho?
To put it simply, pho is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup made of beef broth, herbs, and meat. And much to most people’s surprise, it is not properly pronounced “foh.”
“Pho” is actually pronounced “fuh” (so go read this article title again).
I’ve tried this bowl of goodness at many spots around town, but my true love began when iPho opened on Park Road, so I sat down with owner Hien Ly to learn more about it.
“It’s a soup that really requires your attention and how much love you give to it when you cook it,” she said. In Vietnam, it is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and has a comfort level similar to that of mac-and-cheese in the south.
Let me break it down.
Pho is a process.
From start to finish, the cooking process should take about 15 – 17 hours, which is absolutely key for flavor. It doesn’t happen in a day. For example, if you’re serving pho on a Saturday, you’re gonna be cooking as early as Thursday night.
It starts with a beef bone broth and onions in a pot of water, and this cooks for 10 hours. This is when the cartilage and bone marrow break down. The broth cools over night and is re-cooked the next morning with spices such as star anise, clove, ginger, cilantro, and Vietnamese cinnamon.
In Vietnam, there is little to no refrigeration available, so cooking pho is literally a constant cook, serve, cook, serve process.
Cinnamon is key.
Next time you’re enjoying pho, smell it. Don’t smell cinnamon? Something’s up. This is a key ingredient, and Hien gets hers imported from Vietnam.
“The cinnamon makes or breaks the broth,” she said. The smell and taste of this spice should last down to the last drop. Many have described pho as “tasting like Christmas” thanks to the cinnamon.
Pho means beef.
Well, not literally. But if you’re ordering pho, you’re ordering a noodle soup with beef. (Ex: Pho ga is the chicken version.)
iPho offers all types of meat, including tendon (melts in your mouth), tripe (chewy), meatballs (compact beef), eye-round (lean), and brisket (tender, no fat.) Their most popular bowls are N1 (eye-round) and N3 (eye-round and brisket). Hien’s team takes the time to trim all of their meat so that it’s left with little or no fat.
The noodles and meat are added right before they serve you, and the meat is actually cooked in the hot broth you’re about to down.
The toppings have a purpose.
Here’s a quick breakdown of that plate you receive just before they deliver your pho. Hien suggests tasting the broth before topping it with anything so you get a feel for the flavors.
Vietnamese basil: has a liquorish taste that enhances the flavor of the broth. If Thai basil is used, it will make your bowl bitter.
Jalapeno slices: for heat, of course.
Bean sprouts: for crunchiness.
Lime wedge: for a sour touch and to tone down saltiness.
Hoisin: for smoky-sweetness. I just learned that it’s meant for dipping your meat (more on this below) but I’ve always added it to my bowl.
Sriracha: for heat and dipping.
It’s so fun to eat.
It takes some practice, but using a Chinese spoon and chopsticks really help. Try swirling noodles onto the chopsticks using the spoon as support. Then dip the spoon to get broth.
I usually eat the beef separately, but Hien taught me that it’s traditionally dipped in hoisin and/or sriracha then placed on top of the twirled noodles.
I’m a fast eater, but eating pho takes time. No need to rush when you’re enjoying a big bowl of it.
I have a new found appreciation for my favorite Vietnamese dish after learning so much from Hien. She admits it takes a ton of work to stay true to traditional pho, but I’m telling you right now: it is absolutely worth it.
Here are 5 popular pho spots around Charlotte:
- Vietnam Grille – 5615 South Boulevard
- Saigon Palace – 5215 South Boulevard
- Pho Hoa – 3000 Central Avenue
- Pho Real – 440 McCullough Drive
- Lang Van – 3019 Shamrock Drive