I love pho. I mean it. Pho is better than pizza, better than hambugers, better than tacos. Yeah,....tacos! This is serious folks, pho is no punny business. Yet I see too many restaurants touting ridiculous names. Pho Sho, Pho Reals, Pho Shizzle! PHO SHAME I say. Let the bowl do the talking, not a cliche name.
There are many pho houses in my hometown of Tacoma and everyone here has a favorite. Without bribery or persuasion I've taken it upon myself to try just about all of them. You can thank me later. I wasn't interested in ambiance, I wasn't interested in service, I was focused on that delicate and intense flavor you find in the best of the best. I've chosen two of my favorite locations to share. And although my decision was based primarily on quality, I also picked these two with effort to share the main two different styles of Pho. North vs South or pho bac vs pho nam. Please keep in mind neither of these restaurants are considered primarily North or South by actual designation and they do serve both styles.
SOUTH 38TH ST:
South 38th and the Lincoln District is a hub to find Vietnamese food, restaurants, and community. The area provided a great place for the developing Vietnamese culture of Tacoma to take root. The setting of it's shops and restaurants was relatively similar to the type of neighborhoods Vietnamese immigrants experienced back home. The opening of the East Asia Supermarket in the early 80s further cemented the Lincoln neighborhood as a hub for the Vietnamese community as it provided a source of certain foods typically only found in the International District of Seattle.
Merely by coincidence, or maybe not, two of my favorite pho houses reside on this street.
PHO BAC (NORTHERN PHO):
Vien Dong has received more than it's fair share of accolades for providing a consistently supreme bowl of pho. I've been visiting Vien Dong for years and feel it's difficult to leave out such a steady example. Their recipe shines as what the potential of a true pho bac broth can be. Pho bac is traditionally based on how well a simple beef broth can be produced. The addition of too many ingredients is frowned upon and the diner is encouraged to enjoy the subtle yet powerful flavors derived from the slow cooked beef bones and marrow. Vien Dong does include the inescapable side of sprouts, basil, lime, peppers, along with topping the dish off with cilantro and onions. But try to leave them out, focus on the aromatic broth, the thin sliced rare beef, and the chewy noodles. Think of it like sushi. We're aiming for perfection found within preparation, simplicity, and time.
PHO NAM (SOUTHERN PHO):
Less than a block from Vien Dong is a relatively new pho house called Pho Dragon. 38th street has seen a revival of new restaurants and shops over the past few years. The diversity and culture of the new businesses has also seen the wonderful introduction of Mexican, Japanese, and Southern-American style cuisine. I feel another blog post coming on....... Although Pho Dragon is still a Vietnamese restaurant it is considered a part of the new and exciting array of restaurants to open their doors lately. Pho Dragon fits the bill for pho nam, hands down. Their addition of an abundance of herbs, spices, pork, and garnishes hardly goes unnoticed. From beginning to end each bite exhibits one unique flavor after another working in perfect harmony. Yum.
I remember the very first bowl of pho I had. I was about nineteen and a particularly finicky eater. If it wasn't Americanized pasta, hamburgers, pizza and so on then I wasn't interested. But a friend took me by the hand, guided me through the experience of this weird dish of alien flavors, and by the end I was drinking broth straight from the bowl (not recommended). The experience opened my eyes. I dropped my guard and became a more adventurous diner over time.
So, get out there and do the same. Visit both locations, visit more. Even try the ones with terrible names. Test the different styles and recipes. Then leave me comments of your favorite spots. It'll be the pho battle of the century.