I am a pho-natic. I literally could eat pho every day of my life. Especially when I'm feeling tired, a little run-down, sick, hung-over, blue... oh what the hell, basically it's good all the time. If it's good pho I mean.
The big problem is, the nearest pho to my house is Leesburg, VA at Xuan Saigon a 25-minute drive. Even as addicted as I am I can't justify driving more than an hour just to get a bowl of soup. At least not more than once or twice a month.
So anyway, I TRIED to make pho about 8 years ago, right after I discovered it. Those were the dark days before food blogs-few recipes were around. Well, it was a disaster. I used oxtails and roasted them and hurried the broth and it was a dark, muddy, greasy icky mess. And I tried to sub Italian basil for Thai. Because obviously if it's 25 miles to a pho place it's at least that far to a market with Thai basil.
So last weekend I had little to do and a strong pho hankering and I tackled it again. I used the recipe on the Steamy Kitchen-Modern Asian blog, which was lifted from the wonderful "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen." Just looking at the ingredients and the method is deceiving. It looks simple. Like anyone with half a brain and a year in the kitchen could turn it out. But pho, like true love, is more than the sum of its parts.
Hubby went to the gym on Saturday morning with instructions to bring home 5 pounds of shin and knuckle bones, a pound of chuck steak, and a pack of oxtails. I started the broth around noon on Saturday, but by Saturday evening, when I wanted to infuse it with the spices, I realized that DUH I had no whole cardamom, whole coriander, or star anise. So I had to drive up to the grocery store- about 8 miles away. And of course my normal market didn't have whole cardamom or star anise, even in the measly Hispanic section. So I went to another-same story. I was ready to cross town to a Mexican market when I remember SUPER HELL-MART, the store I love to hate. NOTE TO SELF: Don't ever shop there at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. It looked like an Oklahoma wheat field after a locust plague of Biblical proportions.
I went to the spice section, no luck. I went to the Hispanic foods section (a big area) no luck. On the way out I decided to pick up some bread and lo and behold, there was a Mexican snack rack set up in the bakery area (???) and on one side, the familiar yellow pouch with star anise in it. SCORE!!! The problem of Thai basil still loomed. I would deal with that on the morrow.
By the time I returned it was too late to keep cooking. Thankfully the night was cold so I covered the pot and set it out in God's giant refrigerator-otherwise known as the back porch. When I picked up again on Sunday morning, at 7:30, the fat was nicely congealed and easy to remove. But the broth was strangely light and VERY weak.
At this point I realized I needed more meat. So I trucked up to Winchester again and bought a piece of bottom round (intending to save some for raw slices to submerge in the soup). This time I seared the meat before adding it and deglazed the pan with some broth, putting back all the nice brown yummies along with about 3/4 pound of the round. Along with the fish sauce and sugar, this seemed to be doing the trick.
By this time it was about 10 a.m. And I still didn't have the basil. And after putting all this work into a pot of broth there was no way in HELL I was going to have pho WITHOUT Thai basil. So back into the car. Except this time I had no choice but to drive to Global Food in Manassas, the giant His-pan-Asian grocery store that is a 45-minute trip (one way) from little Boyce, Va. By this time it's 12:30 and hubby is like "Hey remember we made a racquetball appointment for 4 p.m."
Hmmmm. 45 min to get to Manassas, 20 min to shop, 1 hour min to drive back... infuse the broth...and hit the court. CAN IT BE DONE????? Turns out, the answer is yes. Fortified with a classic Car Talk on NPR, I sped down I-66, ran through the produce department (literally), grabbed one of the last 2 Thai basil bunches (and some AMAZING ataulfo mangoes, baby bok choy, sugar cane, Chinese mustard greens, Thai ginger and a few other goodies not normally seen in the Winchester Food Lion). Ironically on the way out of the strip mall, I noticed a "GRAND OPENING PHO 75!!!!!!!!!!!!!" sign on a store front. Did I laugh or cry? You be the judge.
So I got back at 3:20. Removed the meat from the broth, tossed in the spices, turned it to LOW LOW, and ran off to racquetball, where I got my A** thoroughly kicked. Not once but twice. On the way back home I mention to hubby "Oh I forgot to tell you, I invited Mom and Dad and they're coming over at 6:30."
Amazingly when I walked in the kitchen, IT SMELLED LIKE PHO! While I was at the a**-kicking session, the mystery had unfolded without me. The broth was good-not great. Not transporting. Not groan-inducing. But a good solid "better than 'eh'"
Everything came together quickly after that. The pickled onions (I also put cukes in and have been nailing this for a couple years) were awesome, the basil was heavenly, and the cilantro was pungent. The lime, Sriracha, and hoisin played a quartet with the spicy broth. The noodles were soft and slippery. The bean sprouts were cool and crunchy.
My parents raved. Never having been pho-cked, of course, they assumed their first time was the best. But it was a little tiny bit of a disappointment to me - like really, really wanting a baby that looks exactly like your incredibly handsome husband and then having one that looks more like his homely but lovable grandfather.
OK, so I can make pho. And it's good pho. It's not little wrinkled Vietnamese grandma pho. Or even Xuan Saigon Leesburg pho. But it's waaaay better than Winchester VA pho - which is to say, NO pho.
What was it lacking? Was it salt? Did it need more fish sauce? Was it-though I shudder to say it-its pure MSG-less-ness??? The broth, though still a little dark and a little cloudy, tasted fine on the front of the palate, but at the back, when the fumes came up and the fat slid down... there was just something missing. No umami.
So how did the Boyce pho compare with Leesburg pho?
Boyce pho: 30 hours cooking and fretting, including 3.5 hours of driving.
Xuan Saigon pho: 25 min of driving, 1 hour of sitting of my butt being served, 25 minutes of driving back
Bones and oxtail: less than $8
Chuck steak: $5
Round roast: $13
Basil, bean sprouts, cardamom, coriander, star anise: $25
Gas for 100 miles of grocery trips: $10
Bowl of pho at Xuan Saigon: $5.95
Smell of pho - in Boyce or Leesburg - Priceless.