When it’s freezing outside, I immediately start jonesing for pho, which I’ve been mispronouncing for years. It’s not “pho” with a long “o,” but with a short “a” like “sofa.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines pho as “a soup made of beef or chicken broth and rice noodles,” oversimplifying this most awesome of Vietnamese dishes. It’s not a soup per se; it’s actually considered a main entrée noodle dish. Pho has been around for only a couple of hundred years, and food historians generally agree that the dish was derived from the French “pot au feu” and most likely originated in north Vietnam, around Hanoi.
Just like your grandmother’s chicken soup is different from my grandmother’s, no two pho dishes are alike. There is one thing that is generally agreed upon, however: The stock is always made by first roasting and then boiling beef bones to give the stock a meaty yet delicate flavor. Traditionally, pho includes either beef or chicken, and purists consider the use of other broth and inclusion of anything other than beef or chicken to be a crime against nature. I’m no purist, so I’ve inhaled tofu, meatball, sliced top sirloin, chicken, seafood, pork, and vegetable versions. What knocks it out of the park for me are the garnishes. At a minimum, garnishes include bean sprouts, basil, lime, and fresh sliced chiles, such as jalapenos. Some restaurants will also include fresh ngo gai, also known as Mexican culantro (it’s totally different from cilantro). To thoroughly blow your mind, add some chili-garlic sauce, sriracha, and hoisin sauce.
In Chicago, the obvious place to start your pho adventure is Argyle Street. Look around you and you’re going to find as many iterations of pho as you will Vietnamese restaurants. For me, the adventure is finding pho in unlikely places, and here are a few that I’ve really enjoyed.
Pho No. 1
This no-frills Jefferson Park restaurant has some of the best pho I’ve ever eaten. Even my kids dig it. The place is small, the service is great, and should you actually be in the mood for something other than pho, their banh mi sandwiches are killer as well. But seriously, give the combination beef pho (pictured above) a try. You’ll be glad you did. Pho No. 1 is located at 5914 W. Lawrence.
I stumbled onto their stall in the French Market (on Clinton) and was hooked, making it my “Pho Phriday” destination. Some think the pho portions are small; if you’re a seriously hungry bear, round it out with a banh mi. Their vegetarian and chicken pho are gluten-free, and their beef and meatball version can be made gluten-free. Saigon Sisters has three locations: 131 N. Clinton; 567 W. Lake; and 251 E. Huron (inside Northwestern Memorial Hospital).
Saigon Pho & Cafe
Ok, so technically this isn’t in Chicago. However, it is just a block west of Harlem on Madison Street in Forest Park and a short walk from either the Green or Blue Line CTA train lines. Their pho tai (with medium-rare beef flanks) is truly delicious. Not a meatatarian? That’s fine, you can have their pho chay, which is “100% vegetarian.” Saigon Pho & Cafe is located at 7237 Madison in Forest Park.
My next adventure is to attempt to make an acceptable version of pho myself. In the meantime, use the comments to share your suggestions for other places to try.