Noodle dish a real pho-nomenon

Vietnamese comfort food gains steam in metro area


Of all the traditions Vietnamese immigrants brought to the United States, pho is probably the one most people recognize, even if they can’t pronounce it.

The beef-and-noodle dish, pronounced “fuh,” originated in Vietnam in the 1880s. The name is believed to come from the French “pot au feu,” which translates to “pot of fire,” a beef stew the French brought to Vietnam when they colonized the country.

Over the course of generations, the dish became Vietnam’s national food.

“We look at pho like Americans look at bacon and eggs,” says Sunny Wong, whose family owns Pho Real in Littleton. “It’s a staple, it’s a street food. You can just get out of your car anywhere (in Vietnam) and get a bowl of pho. We eat it for breakfast and dinner.”

Pho became popular in the United States over the last few decades, but the trend has become a favorite with consommé consumers, and new restaurants continue to open across the metro area.

Aficionados frown upon referring to pho as a soup, but comparisons arise nonetheless. Wong points out a key difference is pho, as opposed to ramen or wonton soup, is always made with rice noodles, not egg or flour. A variety of spices like star anise and ginger are added during cooking, and the bowl is traditionally topped with thin slices of rare beef that brown in the bowl.

But every batch of pho begins and ends with the broth.

Chanh Nguyen, who owns and operates Hashtag Pho in Centennial with his daughters Ally and Sue, steeps beef bones for two days to infuse all of the flavor he can into the broth, just as Wong’s aunt and uncle do at Pho Real. One disadvantage of pho’s popularity, they say, is that some restaurants have begun to cut corners and use canned broth. Grocery stores have even begun to carry “instant pho,” a concept Sue and Ally laugh at.

But the Nguyens’ discerning customers, like Dan Popylisen, of Parker, know the difference.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years, and some of the younger places around Denver take their broth off the back of a truck,” he says. “This place is the real deal.”

Traditional pho is all about the beef, but many restaurants offer “pho chay,” a vegetarian variation created for Vietnam’s Buddhist population. Pho Real bases their vegetarian broth on soy sauce and adds tofu, while Hashtag Pho’s pho chay is carrot and cabbage-based. At Golden Pho, in Golden the menu boasts that the pho chay there takes 10 hours to cook, and includes onions, ginger, cabbage, snow peas, squash, corn, scallions and even some cinnamon.

‘A sense of pride’

Authenticity and fresh ingredients are important to pho restaurateurs, Wong says, because family honor is on the line with every bowl.

“Every good pho restaurant probably has a family behind it,” he says. “When people came to America from Vietnam, there’s a sense of pride in opening a pho restaurant.”

Born in the U.S., Wong says eating pho almost every day was a way for him to connect to his heritage. For American customers like Chad Baker, of Aurora, the connection may not be as personal, but the personality of the cooks comes through in the taste.

“Every kitchen has its own flavor, every restaurant does its own thing,” Baker, who’s been a pho fan for four or five years, says.

“Every place has a different broth,” says Baker’s table mate, Nicole Nicholas of Highlands Ranch. Being able to customize her dish with basil, lime, jalapeno or sauces available is another plus.

“I like that you can do your own thing with it,” she says.

Littleton’s Janie Salazar says that that versatility makes pho the perfect option for a family. She and her husband bring their children to Pho Real so everybody gets what they want out of the meal.

“There’s so many things you can throw in it,” Salazar says. “Everyone in the family customizes it, and the kids feel like they’re making their own soup.”

A remedy for what ails you

Salazar adds that knowing pho is made with fresh, healthy ingredients makes her feel good about what she’s feeding her family, a selling point not lost on other pho lovers who rely on the dish as a remedy for whatever ails them.

Customers tell the Nguyens they rely on a hot bowl of pho to get them over the flu, a cold or the occasional hangover.

“We hear it all,” Sue says. “I love that pho is becoming the next chicken noodle soup.”

Monica Baruth likes to bring her 24-year-old daughter, Lindsay, with her when she visits Pho Real, especially when one of them is under the weather.

“It’s like you’re eating your medicine,” Monica says, pointing with her chopsticks at the vibrant vegetables floating atop her bowl of broth.

“It’s hydrating as well,” Lindsay says. “I love the freshness of it, it’s hearty and it makes your soul feel good.”

That warm, full feeling is what keeps customers coming back, Wong says, healthy or sick, rain or shine or snow.

“It’s a comfort food. You get filled up but it’s easy to digest,” he says. “It’s also really comforting to have a hot bowl of soup on a cold morning.”

“I check the weather report every night,” he adds with a smile.

As they begin to prepare an entrée for Popylisen, before he can order it, Sue and Ally insist they’d be making pho the same way they always have even if they didn’t have a restaurant.

It’s comfort food for them too, after all.

“We’re eating this every day,” Sue says.

Ally agrees.

“We’re making it as much for us as we are for them.”

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