Pho Saigon, located in the Chinatown district on North Lamar, has become the benchmark for Austin Pho. The standard meal being the Number 11, pho tai – beef noodle soup with rare steak. The quality of this dish is in the main show and in the details. The broth is a complex murky medium of briney goodness. There are hints of the seared ginger and star anise and other herbs that add notes of flavor to the soup. It is served in a deep bowl with the noodles pre-cooked on the bottom of the bowl. Upon order, the broth is heaped on top of the rice noodles and filled to the brim – and then topped with slivered onions and whatever meat you have selected.
A Vietnamese restaurant, by the way, is not the time to prove your manlihood. Don’t order snake if you don’t want snake. Hot sauce is exactly that. Fish sauce tastes REALLY fishy. Don’t be a clown. You are in over your head here.
I had once decided with the help of an ex-girlfriend to make our own pho broth – I spent about $90, spent about 6 hours simmering something that yielded 4 bowls of soup. We then decided to leave it to the pros thereafter. I remember the unit operations that went into this ordeal, from smashing and singeing onions to grinding fresh herbs and putting them into a muslin bag to steep in the broth. Really good pho broth should be bold, salty, and full of gelatin-ey goodness that coats your mouth. I am a fan of broth, although I have learned that some Vietnamese people believe the broth is there only to keep the noodles hot. I have also been told that there are as many ways to eat pho as there are people who eat pho.
I go about my Number 11 in relatively conservative fashion. I take two handfuls sprouts from the dish accompanying the soup and put them in first to get them cooking. Then comes the basil, which I roll between my fingers and tear like bus tickets. A squeeze of lime and a shot of Schiracha and I’m set. I’ll add a squirt of Hoisin sauce if it’s lacking color. I’ve seen the old pros around me fill little bowls with salt and pepper, fish oil, hot sauce, or even <gasp> MSG, and dip their meat pieces into these dishes as they come across them in the soup.
My first experience with pho was a rather underwhelming experience. While in school in Maryland, a Korean friend of mine convinced me to try pho, which I ordered from the Chinese restaurant around the corner from my apartment. What was delivered was a pale almost clear broth completely devoid of flavor. Hoisin sauce had to be added by the cupful for any color to be present.
It must be mentioned at this point that timing is an issue when eating pho. This is not a salad – there is an optimal window of about 15 minutes within which all cylinders are firing and the bowl of soup offers some of the best chow the world will ever know for under 7 dollars. The clock starts when the broth no longer threatens third degree burns, once the noodles have loosened up, and the bits of basil and onion have given their all to the dish. The rare steak, given as a stack of thinly sliced raw meat, will have cooked through, adding its own song to the broth. I have seen some diners rescue the slab of meat using chopsticks to be cooked in the broth at their leisure. The act of enjoying pho earlier than this prime time means basically teasing the rice noodles with your chopsticks for a big night out. Eating position is as follows: chopsticks, right hand; soup spoon, left hand; face, over the bowl. Attacking the pho means alternating slurps from the spoon and from long strands of rice noodles from off the sticks. Here’s where Pho Saigon really comes through. The herb infused broth has now become a little starchy, the noodles are just gummy enough, the sprouts are boiled tender, and the bits of basil, onion, and peppers have browned and disintegrated. The result is a surprisingly deep and complex soup with enough bite and sustenance to keep you full and your taste buds buzzing on your way home.
All in all, Pho Saigon is a dynamite place with a cafeteria type of atmosphere. Prices are reasonable, and the wait staff is quick with the goods. Options for veggie-types depends mainly on how veggie they are. If you are a peel-the-pepperoni’s-off-and-it’s-fine type, you may have a few things to try. Noodle bowls (bun) are available with tofu, but are usually seasoned wtih fish sauce. It’s hard to take an asian restaurant at their word about the contents of the food. In terms of allergies and other food issues, Vietnamese food can be a little daunting. While it SHOULD be gluten free, there is no guarantee what kind of starches can be found in th foods. People with shellfish allergies should know that depending on the brand, fish sauce may have some shellfish products. If you are new to Vietnamese food, try one of the rice dishes with BBQ pork. It’s served with some sauteed green onions and comes with an eggroll and vegetables.
Give this place a try, it’s worth the trip.