I love pho.
We met in college, at a shady shopping center eatery on University Blvd. The large bowl, filled with bright white noodles, almost raw slices of beef and the most aromatic broth I'd ever smelled made my jaw drop. The abundance of "fixins" confused me, but as I added some lime here and scriacha there, I realized this food had endless potential for diner experimentation, something I learned to appreciate as a child eating Liberian pepper soup.
Smoke and mirrors
Over the years, I've visited a number of pho spots in the Greater Washington area. Some were dressed up, with modern decor and soothing ambient music. Others were stripped down with vinyl covered furnishings and Southeast Asian versions of Celine Dion blaring through the speakers. Personally, I am from the camp that prefers the latter - a well worn mom and pop. The way I see it, Mom and Pop don't have TIME to consider the best flatware or to choose an accent color because they are too busy cooking the food they know and love. They don't need trendy art on the walls, because everyone is actually coming for the food. Plus if all those hideous vinyl seats have butts in them, you can be pretty sure you're in for the time of your life.
This theory has proven correct many times over - by the juicy chicken burrito at El Rinconcito (that is largely responsible for my wide waistline) or the INSANE fried fish at Horace & Dickie's (well worth a 10 minute wait surrounded by drunken middle aged men). But when it comes to Pho, I have learned that the ONLY thing that matters is the broth and the best broth in DC happens to come with a sleek decor, great service, and a trendy location.
The Essence of Pho
Pho broth is a complicated affair. Beef bones and marrow are boiled and combined with onions, ginger, star anise and various other aromatics and then left to simmer for hours. I have always pictured a hunched over Vientamese grandmother laboriously stirring a huge pot of this stuff; adding more water or ingredients as needed and never allowing it to quite "die". I don't know if this approach would pass city health inspection, but with such a complicated recipe it seems the only way to maintain consistent flavor.
Pho is amazing because after all the complexity of preparing a good broth, what is presented to the patron is simple perfection. A bowl of thin rice noodles, covered in a health laddle of broth, and then topped with whatever cuts of beef were ordered - chunks of well-done brisket; bible tripe for the adventerous; thinly sliced cuts of raw skirt flank that quickly cook in the piping hot broth. Noodles, broth, meat. That's it. The rest is up to you.
So what is my favorite Pho spot in DC?
Pho 14 on Park Rd in Columbia Heights. Any doubts that were brought up by the modern dining decor were thoroughly vanquished at first sight/smell/sip of their shockingly good Pho broth. That first day I think I ate more than half of the bowl, without even touch the condiments, something I could never do at most places. Bowls at Pho 14 come in regular (7.95) and large (8.95) and are served with a heaping plate of bean sprouts, lime, sliced jalapenos, and a sprig thai basil. Bottles of siracha and hoisin are there as well.
The menu here is huge so there is is actually reason to go even if you're not in the mood for pho (which for me is like, never). One exciting option is "bun" or vermicelli noodle dishes that come with a variety of toppings and are served with fish sauce made in house or a spicy sweet chili sauce. Their banh mi sandwiches - one of the hottest things in DC right now - are only 3.99!
Some other good options in the area are:
Pho DC in Chinatown. It's overpriced and as sleek as they come, but the pho is decent and the service is excellent. Also, they have a liquor license so you can sip while as you slurp.
Noodles on 11 is located at the intersection of 11th Street and New York Ave, NW. It is easy to miss as it is squeezed between a Thai restaurant and sushi bar, but the search is worth it. This place not only serves up a solid pho, but it also does Hong Kong style noodles, a variety of curries, a sweet and tart Tom Yum, and some of the best roast pork I've had in DC. They also serve alcohol and have great happy hour specials.
Do you have a place I need to try? If so, please comment below.