Sushi Pho image
Let’s take a trip back to 2009. It was a simpler time, when people cared what Brian Boitano was cooking, what Fabio Viviani would do after “Top Chef,” and Gordon Ramsay still hadn’t traded a Michelin Star to Walmart for a plastic sack full of shekels. That same year, America collectively “discovered” a Vietnamese dish that is so delicious and life affirming it’s name should only be spoken in reverent whispers. I am, of course, talking about pho.
If you have never eaten a well prepared bowl of pho I cannot begin to express how terribly sorry I am. The first time pho graced my tastebuds with its heavenly flavors, the earth stood still and me thinks me heard the goddess Ambrosia breathlessly pour the word “Yes” into my welcoming ears. I am far from alone in my fearsome addiction to this wonderland of tastes and textures. As early as 2009, the Center for Culinary Development conducted a survey asking people about their comfort food preferences and pho was listed as a favorite comfort food for both Gen Xers and Gen Yers. Fast forward to 2013 and pho has developed an almost cult-like following, particularly in larger cities and areas with large ethnic populations. Chattanooga, on the other hand, is essentially a pho desert, a wasteland dominated by General Tso’s chicken and greasy pork egg rolls that have lulled the populace into a MSG-laden slumber, unaware of the magical nectar that awaits the uninitiated and the unaware.
So what is pho? For those of you who are sadly unfamiliar with pho (pronounced FUH), it’s essentially a noodle soup, but that’s like saying a Bugatti Galibier is essentially a sedan. The broth is the star of the dish, typically made from beef marrow bones or oxtails and is seasoned with a stunning array of ingredients that can include charred onions, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns and fish sauce, among others. The broth simmers anywhere from eight to 24 hours, creating flavors so complex and intoxicating the aroma alone will render you speechless. Meat options range from cooked beef to thinly sliced raw beef that cook in the hot broth just before serving. Some Westernized versions will offer a selection of chicken, seafood or a vegetables-only version for the herbivores in your group.
When your bowl of pho arrives at the table you will also be given a plate of bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil, sliced chili and lime wedges to add to your dish. You will also have hoisin sauce and hot chili sauce available at the table for seasoning to taste. Or at least you should.
Resist the urge to dive into the bowl immediately. First, sample the broth then add a squeeze of lime, black pepper and sliced chilis to suit your taste. Next, add some of the bean sprouts, cilantro and basil to your bowl (remove the stems) and push them down to the bottom of the bowl along with any pieces of rare beef that are still pink. Now, squeeze a 50/50 split of hoisin and chili sauce into a small saucer and mix together to form a spicy, sweet and richly flavorful dipping sauce that is a revelation on its own.
Now your pho is ready to eat. Pair pieces of beef with the basil, cilantro and sprouts, dipping them into the sauce mixture. Alternate with sips of broth and bites of noodle while trying not to disturb other diners with your orgasmic moans of pleasure. Often times, noodles and meat are eaten first, while the broth is saved for the end when it’s perfectly acceptable to tip the bowl up instead of spooning it into your mouth.
Yes, Chattanooga is a pho desert, but there is a flowering oasis that can save us all from a torturous, pho-less existence. Seoul Restaurant on Perimeter Drive is my favorite out of the only two places I have found in town that serve pho (the other is Old Saigon on Dayton Boulevard). Seoul’s owner, Sarah Kim, explained that her pho broth simmers for a full 24 hours using extremely fresh and all-natural ingredients. It certainly shows in the finished product. Her pride and attention to detail is apparent even in the restaurant itself. It’s meticulously maintained, spanking clean and you can sing along to the cheesy Top 40 hits drifting out of the overhead speakers if you’re so inclined.
The bliss and unfettered delight that comes from that steaming hot bowl of this magical soup is unlike any warm fuzzies you may get from chicken noodle soup and is exponentially more comforting, whether you’re battling a cold, a hangover or just want to taste one of the great foods of the world. Trust me, it’s that good.
Mike McJunkin brings exotic, gourmet foods to the office and never shares. Prod him on his Facebook page at facebook.com/sushiandbiscuits.