Delicious no matter how you pronounce it, pho is popping up on winter menus coast to coast. “It’s been trending in Vietnamese restaurants here since the 1980s,” says Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor at Nation’s Restaurant News. “Back then, we used to rhyme it with “foe,” but the correct pronunciation is ‘fuh.’” (Hint: rhymes with “duh.”)
The richly flavored soup is experiencing a bit of a moment this season, a popularity Thorn says might be prompted by the current bone broth craze. “Like bone broth, pho relies on a base of rich broth, usually made from beef,” he explains. Another reason customers are slurping up steaming bowls of pho is what Thorn refers to as “freshness cues.” It’s traditionally served with small bowls of cilantro, basil, bean sprouts and lime, and with bottles of hoisin or other sauces, all of which allow customers to customize their pho bowl with bright flavors.
“People seem to feel like they’re treating themselves better by eating pho than by, for example, having a bowl of ramen noodles,” he says. “It’s still a lot of noodles, but all those add-ins make people feel better about eating it.”
It’s no surprise that inexpensive, filling and personalizable pho has become a frequent offering at higher education dining facilities, and in the ethnic restaurants around college towns. There’s even a five-restaurant chain of pho-centric restaurants, PhoNatic, located in Austin, Texas.
But the bigger food players haven’t made a move toward pho. “One reason might be that noodles, prepared by the order, are not super-easy to execute,” Thorn says. “That could change as more operators use precooked frozen noodles, which makes them easier to adopt for a bigger operation, or one that doesn’t have super-skilled labor.” [See Marzetti tip below.]
The origin of Vietnam’s most popular dish is a matter of some debate, Thorn says: “Of course every culture has a noodle soup, but how this one got started has a few different theories.” Some point to Cantonese beef noodle soup as the original recipe on which pho is based. But others, noting its pronunciation, point to France’s pot-au-feu, a classic preparation whose translation is “pot on the fire.” That dish, a broth-rich stew, usually includes beef, oxtail or marrowbone, root vegetables and spices. “It’s like a brothy pot roast,” Thorn says.
Putting pho on the menu
Adding pho to your operation’s daily soup or entrée special is as simple as reaching for your in-house beef broth, whether purchased or house-made. “You can spice up the stock with clove, cardamom and ginger,” Thorn suggests. “It can be a challenge to keep fresh herbs on hand, but the meat is an easier ingredient, since it can come from leftover cuts or scraps. Pho is traditionally made with beef, but if you have leftover chicken or pork on hand, who’s going to stop you?”
Marzetti’s precooked and frozen Udon Style Noodle – Short Cut can be the perfect base for your own pho creation. Take the noodles straight from the freezer, drop in boiling water for 30 seconds, and you’re ready to add your own unique blend of broth, meat and fresh ingredients.
Next time you’re in Austin, Texas, check out PhoNatic, which claims to make pho “phun, phast and phresh.” There are locations in Northcross, Southpark, Cedar Park, Round Rock and Mueller.
Jim Randle at Voice of America asks: Could Pho become the next pizza?