To say that I like Pho is probably a bit of an understatement. The fact is, I absolutely love the stuff! At least twice a week I go out for lunch to the local Vietnamese restaurant and order a bowl. I am actually proud to say that, at least according to Yelp, I am “The Duke” of the local favorite even. I like Pho so much that whenever I have changed jobs, one of the first orders of business for me, probably right after finding the coffee machine, is to seek out the best Pho shop nearby. Even when I travel, I make a point to see about finding the best local fair to see how it compares to what we get here in the Bay Area. After all my “research”, I have to say, we are pretty spoiled by having so many great little restaurants serving up some fantastic Pho so close by. I thought I would share a few of my favorites around the South Bay as well as a recipe of sorts of my own rendition.
#1 & #2 for me are a tie – and that’s because it is the same restaurant, just two different locations. Pho Wagon has a location in Cupertino off of Homestead and another in San Jose off Meridian. What I love about this place is what seperates it from all other Pho places I have ever been to and that is it has everything – excellent food, great service, and it is super clean. I have tried just about everything on the menu and all of it has been fantastic. From their spring rolls to the onions rolled in beef or their seafood noodle soup. Of course, at the end of the day, it is all about the Pho, and they do it perfect. Hands down, the best Vietnamese food around.
After that, it is sort of a toss-up of which one is better than the other, with each one offering something a little unique. I used to really like Truong Thanh in Milpitas and it is still one that I enjoy going to, but something has changed in the last year or so and I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly. New ownership maybe, not sure? Or maybe just new employees? They make (or made, not sure how it is anymore) the absolute best seafood Pho with fresh shrimp, this amazing buttery flavor broth, and chicken livers that were like little hidden treasures. Probably their best dish though isn’t even the Pho, it is a sizzling beef served over a fresh salad. It is also a very clean restaurant with pretty good service. Again though, just not the same service it was a couple years ago.
Pho Nam in Santa Clara is my current go to establishment. While it is more of the typical “dingy” kind of Pho restaurant in a less than appealing shopping center, they make some really good Pho and are very friendly. My favorite here is the combo Pho with the rare steak, brisket, and tendon. Of all the Pho places, I think they do the tendon better than anyone else. It is always perfectly tender high grade cuts and never the grisly scraps that some places just throw in as an afterthought.
Bamboo Leaf in Santa Clara makes it on my rotation every now and then. Not my favorite, but they have decent food and are relatively quick. This is one of those places that does, unfortunately, use gristle as their “tendon”. So instead of Pho, I usually get the bbq pork & rice with a fried egg. What I do love about this place is they make their own homemade chili sauce that is out of this world. They actually should just convert the building into a chili sauce factory and make that 100% of the time. I imagine they would quadruple their profits, it is that good. Spicy as all get out, but full of flavor and unlike any other chili sauce I have ever tried before.
Pho Kim Long (yes, that really is the name) over in Milpitas seems to be pretty popular, but they are the epitome of what most people probably associate Pho shops with – rude service and a dingy restaurant. The soup is really good, but I can’t get over how they will bump into you with their clean up carts and take away your food/drinks when they think you have been there long enough. I appreciate a busy restaurant trying to flip tables, I get it – we are all in business to make money, but this place takes the rice cake for rudeness.
I have tried many of the other shops around the Bay and, as I mentioned, I have been lucky enough to try many more throughout my travels. What I have found lacking in these other restaurants (other than cleanliness for the most part) is the base broth for their Pho is just sub-par. Like I said, at the end of the day, it is all about the Pho and without a great base broth you are left with a crummy bowl of soup with some noodles and meat. To me, a great Pho broth has levels of flavor that hint of anise, cloves, ginger, onion, garlic, and, of course, beef. Nothing individually smacks you upside the head; instead, it all melds into this perfect union that creates that ever so elusive sense of umami.
I believe one could spend an entire career trying to master the creation of the perfect Pho broth. Personally, I have attempted to make Pho a few times, each time resulting in varying degrees of success. This last time, I was in one of those clean the fridge out kind of moods and what I had on hand sounded like a good chance to come up with a Pho inspired soup. What I ended up with was probably a fusion of Japanese Udon and Vietnamese Pho, but nonetheless, a nice rendition if I do say so myself.
While I have done an exhaustive amount of in-field research, I did take to the internet to get some ideas on how to make this as authentic as possible. So as not to reinvent the wheel, here is one particular site that I found to be most helpful. I always like a comparison recipe too so I had a look on one of my favorite blogs, NoRecipes.com, and found his take on Pho as well.
I followed the basic steps of these recipes and used all the same basic ingredients with just a few minor changes. In my variation, I didn’t happen to have the perfect knuckle bones or oxtails for this, but I did have several bones left over from rib eye steaks and a decent amount of Knorr beef broth packs. Boiling that all down for a couple of hours with the spices and onions got me a pretty decent base broth. The other big difference was that I added shiitake mushrooms into mine – this is what sort of gave it that Japanese Udon flair. And in keeping with the spirit of cleaning out the fridge, I also threw in some leeks. Possibly the show stealer though was the handmade pork meatballs I whipped up with some scallions, garlic, ginger, white pepper and Chinese 5 spice. I steamed those ahead of time and then dropped them in towards the end. While I didn’t have any basil on hand and I probably sliced my onions a little too thick, the end result was a pretty darn good take on Pho.
The last step is to top this with some Sriracha, giving it that extra spice and ensuring the full Pho experience.