“When you wake up in Vietnam, the sun is slowly rising but the temperature is still cool, so you can start your day with a bowl of pho.” — Kenzo Tran
Like any great soup, pho can be as comforting as a good friend. Its subtle yet flavorful broth and tender noodles fill your stomach, and your head, with soothing satisfaction.
Pho warms you on a cold day. It revives you after a bad night. If you’re feeling run down, pho can recharge you. It is reliable and yet transcendent, familiar yet new, like the noodle soup of your childhood but with a unique blend of spices and flavors that takes you to a faraway place.
In Vietnam, pho is a dish that unifies the family, says Kenzo Tran, owner of the newly opened Pho District on West Seventh Street.
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When he was a boy, Tran’s mother would spend the entire day laboring over a pot of pho.
“It takes a long time to process, and she makes it to last a couple days,” he says. “The whole family can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. If she cooks pho, that’s all you’re going to eat.”
Though its delicious roots began in Vietnam as a comforting hallmark of family, pho has steamed its way into mainstream American culture, ascending from exotic ethnic find to foodie favorite.
No matter how you pronounce it — authentically (“fuh”) or Americanized (“foe”) — pho is definitely having its moment.
Pho has been easy to find around North Texas if you look in Vietnamese districts such as those in Haltom City or Arlington.
“When our parents came here after the Vietnam War in 1975, the Vietnamese families migrated to America and formed communities,” Tran says. “When you’re away from your home town, you miss the foods. It’d be, ‘I’m sick of McDonald’s, I wish I could have a bowl of pho right now,’ ” he says. “So people opened places to serve that community.”
But the soup has expanded to non-Vietnamese areas, as well, such as Pho & Grill in southwest Fort Worth and Pho Hung, set to open on Camp Bowie Boulevard in December.
“Our sons and daughters have ventured out into American society and made friends,” Tran says. “We started forming relationships with everyone and introduced them to pho. That’s how most of my friends got to know it, by coming with me.”
In Dallas, there’s a small authentic chain called Pho Is for Lovers, featuring recipes from the owner’s grandmother. At Mot Hai Ba, a chic neighborhood restaurant in east Dallas, pho gets the four-star treatment from a pair of chefs. A quick-serve chain called Pho Que Huong is bringing pho to suburbs such as Plano, Irving and Frisco.
Pho is part of a bigger trend of Vietnamese food moving into the mainstream. We’ve already seen the popularity of the banh mi, the Vietnamese version of a sub sandwich on a crisp baguette, showing up at unexpected restaurants such as R Bar & Grill in Fort Worth and Knife Steak in Dallas.
Dallas has a food truck dedicated to the banh mi called Nammi. And Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands has launched a new concept called Banh Shop, with one branch near Southern Methodist University and another opening at DFW Airport.
But pho holds a special place, says Kristy Yang, a food blogger who grew up in Fort Worth and has written extensively about pho.
“It is appealing because it’s comforting and familiar,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s a bowl of noodle soup. Almost every culture has grown up with some kind of noodle soup, whether it’s chicken soup or pho.”
The essential ingredients of pho include a long-simmered broth, perfectly cooked noodles, and a meat or combination of meats.
But what makes pho unique is its use of spices more commonly found in desserts such as clove, allspice, star anise, ginger or cinnamon. The best renditions are able to balance the savory with the sweet.
“Some bowls of pho, you’re hit in the face with five-spice powder and you know they overcompensated,” Yang says.
“Classic pho is a beef noodle soup,” she says. “You should immediately taste the beef broth, the beefiness of the broth as well as the flavor of lime. Every element should be distinctive, but they all work together. The texture of the noodles should be correct — not mushy but not al dente. Everything plays its part but it all has to work together, like a symphony.”
Tran says that to know pho is to love pho.
“When I would first bring friends, they would freak out,” he says. “Maybe the first time, it wouldn’t register. ‘Who would eat a bowl of soup this big for lunch?’ It didn’t make sense to them. But then on the second bowl, they realized what it was. And from there, they started coming back without me and brought their friends.”
And so a trend began.
We’ve been slurping our way around town and we’ve come up with our six favorite phos. So grab a spoon and a pair of chopsticks and dig in.
Authentic and cheap.
Pho Bang (pronounced “bon”) is one of the best old-school places that was around before pho became hip. Located in Garland, an Asian restaurant hub, it’s where you go to get a lot of pho for not much money, with authentic options for meat such as tripe and tendon. With its Spartan hole-in-the-wall setting in a strip mall, it’s not much for atmosphere, although the interior did get an update earlier this year. But service is efficient and the pho is delivered promptly.
There are 15 varieties of pho, from basic beef to chicken to seafood to no meat at all. The broth is pale and subtle, almost bland; adding garnishes and fish sauce is a good idea. Portions are generous, and you can get all kinds of meats including tripe, tendon, sliced beef, meatballs and brisket. Get the “No. 1” with eye-of-the-round steak, for only $6 a bowl. 3565 W. Walnut St., Garland. 972-487-6666 ; facebook.com/phobang
Upscale and suburban.
Pho Chateau serves very good pho in a designer atmosphere. It’s on the list for any pho aficionado because the quality is high. For newbies, it comes with a reassurance of sorts: Owner Mike Chen also owns Steel, another upscale Asian restaurant, off Oak Lawn Avenue in Dallas. Service is iffy, but just concentrate on the pho, in six varieties: beef, chicken, seafood, tofu, spicy filet mignon and curry noodle with a coconut curry broth, priced from $8 to $11.
Chateau’s broth is dark and assertively flavored, with an intense beefiness that’s matched by a strong dose of spices and subtle sweetness. It comes with both thinly sliced white onion and chopped scallions, as well as a few chopped cilantro leaves. The broth has very little fat to spoil the clarity. Noodles are soft and fluid. Get the spicy filet mignon; its spice level brings an energizing blast of heat. 949 W. Royal Lane, Irving. 214-613-2079; phochateau.com
Trendy and tops.
Pho District is the sleek newcomer from Kenzo Tran, owner of Piranha Killer Sushi. With its upscale atmosphere, full bar and fashionable address, it’s a trendy place to try out pho. The good news is that its pho is a contender for best in town. Tran simmers the broth overnight, reducing the liquid until the flavor derived from the simmered beef bones becomes potent. He’s exacting about skimming away the fat, resulting in a soup that’s pure and clean. This is a broth that needs no garnish.
His beef pho has brisket, filet mignon and meltingly soft meatballs; the meats are good. But Pho District is one of the few places that offers pho “dry”: with all of the ingredients in a bowl and the broth on the side. Not only can you sample the broth on its own, you can add the amount you like for your own custom-made soup. 2401 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth. 817-862-9987 ; phodistrict.com
Pho & Grill
Pho & Grill would be notable if for no other reason than the fact that it brings pho to the southwest perimeter of Fort Worth, an area previously bereft of pho. But there’s more to P&G than convenience. This tiny, already-crowded family-run spot takes the old-school traditional route, with a long list of options, ranging from meats that are familiar to novices such as steak and chicken, to authentic cuts such as tendon and tripe.
Its broth has a kind of golden sweetness, and it is packed with ingredients: thinly sliced eye-of-the-round beef still pink in the center, fat meatballs, lots of onion and scallions, too. Keeping in line with the restaurant’s old-school profile, you get a bountiful quantity of soup, pleasing value-minded diners. But what’s this? It recently added filet mignon to the menu, so you can go authentic or new school, either way. 4938 Overton Ridge Blvd., Fort Worth. 817-292-3311; phoandgrillfw.com
Pho Is For Lovers
Reliable and accommodating.
Pho Is For Lovers, a.k.a. “PIFL,” is a truly authentic pho that just happens to be located in the nicer parts of town. If you ask a Vietnamese person who makes their favorite pho, many will say their mother. That’s just about what you get here. Owner Diana Tang not only has her grandmothers’ recipes, she has them helping out in the kitchen at her small but growing chain.
PIFL follows the fast-casual approach, where you order at the counter and get your pho delivered to your table. The broth is pale and clear, delicate yet potent, ready for doctoring if you crave a kick, but perfect on its own. There are four choices, priced from $8 to $9: beef, chicken, seafood and tofu. All do the trick, but the tofu is particularly stunning, with soft tofu and shiitake mushrooms in a veggie broth laden with perfectly cooked vegetables including carrots, radish and gorgeous green sugar-snap peas. 5521 Greenville Ave., No. 105, Dallas (also at Preston and Beltline, and in Allen). 972-708-1028 ; phoisforlovers.com
Mot Hai Ba
If you’re an old-school pho fan who protests the very idea of pho being a “chef” thing, then Mot Hai Ba will not be your cup of soup. But if you like gourmet food prepared by well-regarded chefs, then MHB is your go-to spot. Jeana Johnson and Colleen O’Hare, the two chefs who opened Mot Hai Ba in the old York Street space in East Dallas in 2013, cannot boast Vietnamese grandmothers. But they did the next best thing: They went to Vietnam and learned how to make it there. Their pho is authentic, yet shows the culinary finesse that comes from the hand of chefs who have worked at four-star restaurants like Stephan Pyles and the Green Room.
Their pho is Northern-style — heavy on the savory, light on the sweet — and they formulate their own mix of spices, including allspice and star anise. They offer three kinds: beef, chicken and tofu, and make a different broth for each. All are good, but the chicken — with its delicate broth and extra-tender chicken breast cut into laser-sharp slices, so visually appealing — might be the one to get. You don’t see a chicken pho this well made anywhere else. 6047 Lewis St., Dallas. 972-638-7468 , mothaibadallas.com