Point-Counterpoint: Is Pho King or Is It Pho-King Awful?
Vietnamese Pho Bo Tai
This week's topic: Pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Pho joints have been growing in popularity throughout the Valley and we've reviewed more than a couple of them.
Ando: Pho is pretty much the best thing ever. I rank a good bowl of pho up there with a hamburger, pizza, and CoCo's curry. When I was in the Navy, stationed in Okinawa, Japan, I had all the curry I could eat, but I longed for a competent hamburger, a slice of pizza that didn't also have squid and corn on it, or a simple bowl of pho with all the fixings. Just as a hamburger is the culinary equivalent of the golden mean, balancing meat against bread against condiments, pho is the perfect confluence of noodle, broth, and just enough meat bits to keep it interesting. It's fresh, it's filling, and when it's done right, it'll feed your soul and clear your sinuses.
That's right, I assert pho is superior to all other noodle/soup configurations because of its health benefits. Bring it, FDA.
Lauren: I feel toward pho the way I feel toward a lukewarm piece of delivery pizza, just . . . meh. The watery broth, the sides of raw veggies, the thin anemic-looking noodles -- pho starts my heart longing for a warm bowl of hearty ramen. There's no way you can tell me that pho (even the name sounds un-enthusiastic) is a better "noodle/soup configuration" than ramen! Pho is pho is pho. But there are dozens of variations on ramen, every one of which is a filling meal with delicious, salty broth and hearty noodles. I grew up on the stuff and there's no way you'll convince me pho is in any way superior.
Ando: Pho is king; it's pho-king good. There's nothing unenthusiastic about that.
That said, you're asking me to pit two things I love against one another and I don't think that's fair. Pho is a very different food than ramen although they do share some commonalities. What makes pho special is that it IS a lighter dish than ramen or similar noodle dishes. It's a dish adapted to Vietnam's impressive heat and crushing humidity. I've eaten pho for breakfast in Vietnam, squatting in a grade-school courtyard slurping noodles and "weak" broth while watching the sun bring the surrounding area to a rolling boil. It's at times like that and in places like Phoenix when a hearty bowl of ramen will feel out of place.
Lauren: Oh, how I beg to differ. I, too, have fond memories, my good sir. Memories of Shiro's Saimin Haven in Waimalu Shopping Center. A magical, noodle-filled place where you can order 60 different types of saimin , each of which promises its own flavor profile built around the basic combination of fresh noodles and the perfect broth. How can you not see that ramen, with its infinite variations, is the only noodle dish that can and does have a form to fit every occasion? "Impressive heat and crushing humidity" you say? Well that sounds pretty much exactly like weather in Hawaii, and let me tell you, there isn't a day in July where I'd turn down a good bowl of ramen. P-h-o? More like p-s-h. Puh-lease.
Ando: But pho and ramen are apples and oranges. They are not, as the economists would say, substitution goods. One does not give up a bowl of ramen because a bowl of pho is available.
You keep bringing up variety like it's the end all be all of a particular dish. The basic elements of pho are more or less standard -- it's one very particular bowl of noodles with one particular kind of broth and a small variety of condiments that go with it. Good pho beef, which is very hard to come by in Phoenix, is substantial and amazing. More usually you're getting thinly sliced flank and maybe the good bit of tendon. And therein lies the beauty of the so called "weak" broth of pho. Because it's flavorful but complex, it complements rather than overruns. This means that pho, unlike most other bowls of noodle soup is fantastic for showcasing beef in all its glory. That's why they serve the beef raw and give you sides that can substantially decrease the broth temperature if you so desire. There's a sweet spot in the eating of a bowl of pho that is very personal and predicated solely on how well done you like your beef.
Don't be angry at pho just because it isn't ramen.
Lauren: I brought up ramen only because you threw down pho as "superior to all other noodle/soup configurations." But you're right, and putting my ramen aside, I can still say I don't see the attraction to pho. If I want good beef, I'd probably not reach for a bowl of noodle soup. But when I do feel that rumbly in my tumbly, it can be quieted only by a bowl of hearty noodles. I'm sorry to say, pho just doesn't do the job. I like my broth to be salty and strong, and my meat cooked. To build on your last statement, I think the one thing we can safely say is that eating a bowl of noodle soup -- be it Campbell's chicken, a bowl of pho, or homemade ramen -- is a universally comforting experience that's tied to so many treasured memoires it can only be seen and appreciated through one's own eyes.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.