I had an inkling I was catching a cold in the morning, when I awoke with a headache and it took a while to banish the sleep from my mind. At work, my cold came on gradually and inevitably. I sat at my desk feeling the chills prickle my skin, and the skritch in my throat when I swallowed. When my husband was a little boy, he once described to his mother how a cold makes everything in your body ache; he said, “My hair hurts.” That’s how I felt.
It's an old wives' tale that hot soup helps cure the common cold. I'm not sure if that’s true, but I know that when I’ve been brought down low with a cold, I want a good bowl of phở, or Vietnamese beef noodle soup.
I wish I could remember who introduced me to phở. I know I tasted my first bowl in Seattle, a city whose grey and rainy climate fosters a primal need for such a hot, steamy comfort. There’s a little wedge-shaped clapboard shack at the five-way intersection where Rainier Avenue meets Jackson Street, so small its windows were always fogged up from the steam that arose in the kitchen. That may have been the first place I sat, crammed behind a formica table, slurping up broth and noodles flavored with herbs, and chopsticking slices of tender beef in hot sauce.
But it could have been a little counter downtown, hidden behind a jewelry arcade just across Fifth Avenue from the old Nordstrom’s building. I would go there for lunch break when I worked at the Fifth Avenue Theatre or the Paramount, when I wanted to be by myself instead of grabbing a beer and a sandwich with the guys. A bowl of phở was cheap – under five bucks, back then – and there was something both comforting and solitary about sitting on a stool at a counter with people who spoke another language.
Phở is the kind of dish you find in the proverbial hole-in-the-wall joint. When I first came to Los Angeles, and worked in the nearby city of Long Beach, I ate lunch at a strip-mall Chinese take-out place. After I learned they had an off-menu selection dishes for Vietnamese students at the nearby university, I never ordered orange chicken again.
Phở is made with beef marrow bones, cooked for hours with spices that include cloves, cinnamon, and star anise. The broth is strained, defatted and clarified, and then heated up again to a searing boil. To serve, the broth poured over boiled noodles called banh phở, flat white rice noodles, and garnished with sliced onions and cilantro.
It comes to the table in a huge steaming bowl, and alongside a platter heaped with herbs, bean sprouts, sliced green chiles, and wedges of lime.
Just breathe in the steam. If you’ve ordered phở tai, thin slices of rare beef eye of round float atop the broth, slowly losing their pinkness as they cook in the hot liquid.
Sip a little broth to taste. Then customize it as you like - add a squeeze of lime, handfuls of sprouts, torn bits of fresh basil or sawtooth herb.
Hold the spoon in your left hand and your chopsticks in your right. It’s okay to put your face down low to the bowl. Some people put a bit of onion or herb, a bit of beef and some noodles in the spoon and sip. Others just use chopsticks to eat the noodles. It’s okay to slurp.
The bean sprouts are crunchy and have that faint chlorine taste, while the basil is the purply-stemmed Thai kind, sharp and anise-like. I like to float a round of jalapeno on top for its fragrance and flavor.
Tables in phở joints have an assortment of condiments at the ready, like hoisin sauce, Sriracha hot sauce and fish sauce. I like to mix sauce in a little dish and dunk the slices of beef before I eat them.
Phở is said to have originated in the northern city of Hanoi. Before the French colonial era, cows were used primarily as beasts of burden, but the French had different tastes. The French took the meat, leaving the Vietnamese the bones – which were perfect for broth. The word "phở" may be derived from the French "feu" or fire, as in "pot-au-feu" which is basically beef stew in a pot. And, indeed, that’s how it’s pronounced – like “fuh” or even “furhh”, not “foe,” as it looks to our American eyes.
Diners can choose from a wide variety of beefy treats to add to the soup. For phở tai, beef eye-of-round is sliced thin and added to the broth – it’s so hot it cooks the raw beef in the bowl. Other versions serve sliced brisket, flank, tripe, little round meatballs, and something called "tendon," which, I admit, I haven’t tried. You can also get tripe. At a restaurant, if you see Phở dac biet on the menu, it’s the house specialty, and means you get a little bit of everything.
Though Seattle was where I met its acquaintance, southern California is heaven for those who love phở.
Garvey Avenue in El Monte is a wide paved hodge-podge of muffler and auto-body shops, tacquerias, markets, liquor stores and botanicas - and dozens of Vietnamese restaurants. Some have a full dining menu, others are simpler and more focused, but almost all of them serve phở. Competition is fierce on Garvey Avenue – and the customer is the winner. You can get phở made with filet mignon, the raw steak chopped like tartare in a dish alongside.
One place, Phở Huynh, which shares a parking lot with a muffler shop, serves Hanoi-style phở bắc with fresh rice noodles, which are wider and more soft and silken-textured in the mouth. It comes to the table in huge double-walled stainless steel bowls. Hanoi-style phở is more austere and less fancily garnished than southern phở nam, sometimes called phở Sài Gòn after that city.
But even the basic phở dac biet sets you back only eight dollars or so. For that, you get a bowl of soup that will help you sweat out that fever, clear your bronichals, soothe your aches and pains, and fill your emptiness. A pretty good bargain, I’d say.
Aunt Snow is one of the most interesting women Mrs. G. has had the pleasure to meet. She is a true renaissance woman who writes about the need to celebrate life all around you. You can read more of her writing at her blog, Doves Today.