The secret to good pho, says Tuan Nguyen, is to make it from scratch, with real beef bones.
Forget the canned base. That will build a broth that is dark and murky, not clear, like the soup served at Redmond's new Pho House Vietnamese restaurant.
“It's a family recipe,” said Nguyen, who was born in Saigon but moved to Central Oregon five years ago from San Diego with his wife, Nicole, and their infant child. The couple met at San Diego State University, where both were English majors. Tuan was a blossoming writer, having published a short story that won him a scholarship.
But he couldn't get his mother's food off his mind.
During the Vietnam War era, Nguyen's parents had operated a large restaurant in a Saigon hotel. Tuan doesn't remember a lot from back then, but he's heard the stories. When he was 11, in 1983, the family left Asia for the United States, settling first in Texas, then moving to Southern California.
“I grew up watching my mom cook,” he said. “When I got older and spent years away from home, I realized how much I missed her cooking. I would call for recipes and got to know everything she made. And sometimes, I added my own twists.”
Having decided to raise their child in a nonurban environment, Tuan and Nicole relocated to the High Desert. Nguyen found work at area resorts — Kah-Nee-Ta High Desert Resort & Casino, Black Butte Ranch and Seventh Mountain Resort.
“But we'd been talking about opening up a Vietnamese restaurant since we moved here,” he said. “The opportunity presented itself in September of last year, and we opened in December.”
How to eat pho
Tuan's mother, Phuong, 75, took over the kitchen. Dividing her time between Redmond and her San Diego home, she helped teach Nicole, who is not Asian, as she prepared dish after bowl. “Nicole knows more about Vietnamese cooking than any Vietnamese woman I know, except my mom,” Tuan said.
They certainly know how to make a good bowl of pho, the beef and rice-noodle soup that may be the best-known Viet food in North America.
There are different versions of pho, including some that are vegetarian or made with chicken. I tried the classic Dac Biec, made with four versions of beef — thinly sliced steak, brisket, tendon and meatballs — in clear broth. Along with the long noodles, the soup includes sweet and green onions and cilantro.
But wait: There's more! A side plate carries a generous helping of raw bean sprouts, along with a stalk of fresh basil, several slices of jalapeno pepper and a wedge of lime.
When I eat pho, I typically put all of the sprouts and basil leaves in my soup, add maybe a single slice of pepper, and give it a healthy squeeze of lime. Then I drizzle the stew with hoisin (sweet soy) and Sriracha chili sauces from my tabletop condiment tray, and eat with both hands — deep spoon in my left hand for the broth, chopsticks in my right hand for the meat and noodles.
Pho House is a neat, clean cafe in the Redmond Plaza Retail Center, a U.S. Highway 97 strip mall on the south side of town. Eight tables seat up to 32 diners, though it's rare to see that many people here. Service is casual but generally prompt.
The decor is simple, with a stylish but unfinished wood wall and just a touch of modern Viet art. The soundtrack is one of contemporary and classic rock, a reminder that the Nguyens, despite their heritage, are as much American as they are Vietnamese.
Open seven days a week, the restaurant “is nonstop work,” said Tuan. “We want to provide good food and service.”
To that end, he realizes that he'll have patrons who are unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine.
“We have a teriyaki plate on the menu, with chicken, pork or beef, as a comfort zone for those people,” he assured. “It's more Westerner friendly.”
Bun and banh mi
I'm not afraid of foods that I've never tried before. So I had no qualms about diving into a bowl of special Bun Bo Hue, which the blackboard menu described as a vermicelli (rice pasta) noodle soup.
Although bun is a beef broth like pho, it is made with lemongrass and contains not just beef (in this case, brisket) but also pork and shrimp. And I found it naturally spicy, even without the jalapenos or Sriracha.
It was delicious.
I also like Pho House's banh mi, a baguette sandwich embraced by the Vietnamese during their long period of French colonization. A good baguette is crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and the Banh Mi Special was no exception. A generous amount of pork, was folded into the bread with quiche, then garnished with pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro and cucumber slices. Yum.
Pho House's spring rolls were not, however, as good as those I've had elsewhere. Although the pair were not deep-fried like egg rolls, these “fresh rolls” suffered from a rice-paper wrapping that was too thick and gummy.
Nevertheless, the filling was excellent — shrimp, rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber, mint, cilantro and bean sprouts, all rolled into one neat package — even if the accompanying peanut sauce was a little thin.
A dessert called Che Sinh To was a pleasant surprise. At once light, fruity and nutty, it was one of the most typically Asian sweets I've found in Central Oregon. Served on a bed of crushed ice, chilled red and white beans were mixed with gelatin-like sugar-palm fruit and bits of jackfruit. Sweet coconut milk was poured over all, topped with shaved coconut meat and crushed peanuts.
Location: 1604 S. U.S. Highway 97, Suite 9, Redmond
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
Price range: Appetizers $5, soups (pho and bun) $8 to $10.50, sandwiches (banh mi) $6,50 and $7, rice dishes $8 to $10.
Credit cards: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Kids' menu: Several plates $3.50 to $4.50
Vegetarian menu: Several options
Alcoholic beverages: Beer and wine
Outdoor seating: No
Contact: www.phohouseredmond.com or 541-526-5474
Food: A-. The soups, pho and bun, are a highlight of a simple Vietnamese menu.
Service: B+. Very casual, but friendly and generally prompt in taking and delivering orders.
Atmosphere: B+. Neat and clean despite strip-mall location, with simple but stylish decor.
Value: A: Prices are kept at budget level for quality soups and sandwiches.
Next week: Bend's new Brickhouse
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