Pho is a Vietnamese soup whose story, like its recipes, are passed down from generation to generation, according to Pho Viet’s owner Tan Vo. Originating in North Vietnam, pho evolved to reflect the country’s distinct regions dependent on weather, availability of vegetables, meat and local ingredients.
It begins with the tale of Mai, who lived in the northern region of Vietnam when it was occupied by the Chinese in the eighth century. She created a broth with noodles based on Chinese noodle soup. She would walk her cart through the streets, calling out “Phó! Phó!” The delicious aroma from the soup wafted through windows of the neighborhoods, and the Chinese flocked to buy the rich broth that had been cooked for over six hours. Many wanted to pay her for the recipe, but she wanted to keep it a secret to be passed down to her family. Over the centuries, Mai’s family migrated to other parts of Vietnam where they adapted the recipe to suit the needs of the diners in each region.
While this is a charming tale, most food historians tell a different story about pho, one that only goes back to the 1900s. There are pictures depicting men carrying poles across their shoulders On one side is a hot cauldron over a wood fire; the other side stores noodles, spices and cookware. In 1954, when the country was split into North and South Vietnam, millions of people fled to the south bringing their traditional pho recipes. The ingredients for pho changed in the South, which had an abundance of vegetable crops, animals and seafood.
Whether it was Mai’s ancestors that passed down recipes, or recipes widely traded, pho is a delectable soup with its rich flavorful broth, gluten-free rice noodles and fresh vegetables. On each table at Pho Viet, you’ll find the typical condiments customers use to personalize the soup to their taste — fish sauce, hot chili sauce, Sriracha and sweet dark bean hoisin sauce
When Vo opened Pho Viet & Cafe in 2010, he served traditional beef pho from North Vietnam along with chicken and vegetarian broth options. Using high-quality ingredients, he cooks the broth for at least 20 hours to create a rich base. The result is an intense broth flavor with health benefits. Studies have shown that beef bone broth helps the immune and digestive systems as well as strengthening bones and joints. A different pot is used for beef, chicken and vegetable broth so there is no cross-contamination. As Vo started offering different styles of pho from different regions of the country, he used dedicated pots for each style of pho, as well.
A few years ago, he added another style pho to the basic northern style. Bun Bo Hué (pronounced bun bow hooay) is from the central part of Vietnam. Just north of Da Nang, the Hué is on the coast in an area that is cold and rainy. The pho in this region is heartier, with three types of meat— chicken patty, sliced pork and beef. The spicier broth with added lemongrass boosts the immune system and helps fight off colds brought on by the severe weather of the region. The noodles are rounder and heartier than the delicate rice glass noodles of the north. As bean sprouts may be harder to find in this region, cabbage is served in its place.
Recently, Vo added a southern style soup. Hu Tieu Tom Som reflects the lightness and happiness of the people in the southern tip of Vietnam. About a million people migrated from the north to this area bringing a lot of Chinese influence in this pho. Here it is warmer and there is a bounty of vegetables and fish.
In a chicken and pork broth, this pho is stocked full of shrimp and pork and is flavored with roasted garlic, onions and shallots with the thin rice noodles. The meat is dipped into a chili sauce that comes with the typical Thai basil, cilantro and bean sprouts.
The vegetarian pho is both vegan and gluten-free and cooked in a separate pot so there is no cross-contamination. Loaded with tofu, and crispy steamed fresh vegetables, the origins of this recipe come from a Buddhist temple. Like the meat broths, the vegetarian broth is cooked for almost a day to ensure rich flavors in the soup.
I had the chance to try five bowls of soup side-by-side. All are fresh and warm the body, and each has a distinct taste to suit your mood or nutritional needs. Beef bone broth or chicken broth soup will soothe you when you are sick or rundown. Perhaps you’d prefer the subtle garlic and onion flavor of the southern Hu Tieu with shrimp and pork ribs. But the strong flavors of the Bun Bo Hué has the bold rich spice and lemongrass to kick that cold right out of you.