May 31, 2012
Throw a stone from the Field’s Corner MBTA station, and you’re most likely to hit a Vietnamese restaurant serving some of the best Pho the city has to offer. Pho (pronounced fuh), a fragrant and flavorful noodle soup, is the Southeast Asian country’s most popular soup dish, and it has also found a fond place in Americans’ stomachs and hearts.
According to phofever.com, a website devoted to all things Pho, there are over 2,000 Pho restaurants across the U.S. and Canada. Dorchester certainly contributes to this figure, boasting at least eight in the neighborhood.
I myself was a relative stranger to the dish, but I craved to know more about what makes the soup so special to natives and foreigners alike. Pho is traditionally served with either shreds of chicken, Pho Ga, or sections of beef including the brisket, flank, tendon or meatballs, Pho Tai. A standard bowl always contains thin white vermicelli-like noodles, rounds of white onion, chopped scallions and scattered cilantro all submerged in a steaming hot broth filled to the brim.
Additionally, it comes with a small plate of fixings for customers to add to their liking, including sprigs of sweet basil, a quartered lime wedge, cool and crisp bean sprouts and tiny but very hot bird’s eye chilies. The soup seems deceptively simple at first glance, but actually it takes much more skill for all of the ingredients to correctly come together.
Over the course of a few weeks, I ate a bowl of Pho Ga at every Pho restaurant in Dorchester I could find. From watching others around me, I learned that the best way to enjoy the typical restaurant food is to slurp the soup quickly while it’s hot, adding condiments as you eat in order to maintain the temperature. Even with my palate previously unfamiliar to Vietnamese cuisine, it was easy to distinguish the better tasting bowls of Pho. And to get a better sense and background on the dish, I spoke to Nam Pham, the executive director of local community development corporation Viet-AID.
“The taste is very complex. It’s not a typical noodle soup,” he said.
A good noodle soup is dependent upon on a few things. One of the most important components is the broth. How it’s made is by simmering the bones over the course of several hours and preparing a new batch every day. Pham informed me that some restaurants take a shortcut and resort to a using a paste instead. The places where I had asked and found if the broth had been stewed brought bowls that were clearer colored liquid.
Occasionally it took on a darker shade of brown, which could be attributed to a heavier dose of spices. Typical spices pho is cooked with can include cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seed and coriander seeds. When asked, restaurant owners were hesitant to share their recipes—often times, a family secret. Pham says that’s why every place serves up a bowl unique from the next.
“For my taste the less bone you use, the worse it tastes. And that why each restaurant taste different,” he said. “And it depends on how much the chef uses some of the ingredients.”
According to these criteria, Pham suggested a few places I might find the most authentic taste. The top five restaurants I determined were: Pho Le, Pho Hoa, Hien Vuong, Pho So 1 and Anh Hong, all within a half-mile radius of each other. What these bowls of Pho had in common were a taste of perfectly-cooked meat, savory stewed broth and fresh greens.
The use of dark and white meat that tasted so tender from being cooked on the bone was often times what pushed an average bowl to be exceptional. Even as the piping hot broth further cooks the chicken, the meat still maintained its soft chewiness. Anh Hong prepares their chicken the best, but they lost points for their broth.
At Anh Hong, the liquid came out looking different from the rest of the soups. There was a slick sheen of oil and small bubbles on the surface. While otherwise delicious, there was so much oil that it ended up on hands and face after eating. In contrast, the broths at Pho Hoa, Pho Le and Hien Vuong only tasted of chicken bone marrow and subtle spice.
Small hole-in-the-wall restaurant Hien Vuong was a delightful surprise. Located just around the corner from the T station, a superb bowl of Pho is easily within reach. The owner, Tam Ho, adds her own touch to the soup by scattering fried onions on top, giving it an extra salty crunch. Since her restaurant opened 20 years ago, she has stewed the broth from scratch the night before every working day.
“Everyday it’s fresh. In the evening, I throw it away. When it’s fresh, you can taste it,” she said.
Unlike Hien Vuong, Pho So 1 server Andy Nguyen admitted that their recipe uses a paste. While the meat and ingredients tasted fresh, the broth was a darker brown color with a more evident sweet and sour flavor. He said that the liquid is the most important feature of Pho, but everyone has their own idea of how it should taste.
“Everybody has a taste of Pho they think makes it the best,” Nguyen said. “People eat by the mouth, but they eat by the nose and eyes first.”
The mother of all Dorchester Vietnamese restaurants, Pho Hoa, is a proper establishment with a large seating area and modern décor. The service was fast, and the soup tasted as if it should be made the gold standard. Pham says Pho Hoa is the area’s first Vietnamese Restaurant, where it used to stand in the place of Pho Le, sitting just behind. Pho Le’s Pho is just as good, and it received Pham’s number one recommendation.
Many of these restaurants have been in Dorchester for around 20 years, which was during the time thousands of Vietnamese left their homeland. Pham says most of the immigrants in Boston settled around Fields Corner and Ashmont during the 80s and mid to late 90s. While each place in Vietnam has its own regional noodle soup, the Pho that emerged from the north has traveled the distance. Since then, Pho restaurants have been the cornerstone of the Viet community.
To their importance, Pham said, “In addition to furthering our community, it’s important to introducing the basics of our culture to the mainstream. They also provide jobs. It’s both a cultural and economic development for our community.”