Pho (pronounced "fuh") becomes more popular and more prevalent in Cleveland by the day, and we couldn't be more pleased given the weather. While ingredients and accoutrements vary from place to place, the dish is one of the most pleasant to enjoy this time of year — a big, warm hug by way of Vietnamese cooking traditions.
Pho, at its most basic, is noodles and meat in a beef broth. The most typical meat is beef, which can be in the form of thinly sliced brisket or sirloin, tripe, tendons, meatballs or any combination thereof. Brave and hearty eaters can opt for pho dac biet, which usually includes a mixture of all the meats on hand, sometimes including chicken livers, hearts, etc. Every restaurant's broth is a little different, but all are made by slow cooking to draw out the flavors from the beef bones, onions, ginger and other spices. Most pho shops also offer pho ga, a chicken-based soup for those looking for a milder, more familiar taste.
Add-ins such as bean sprouts, jalapenos, basil or cilantro, lime, Sriracha and fish sauce allow the diner to customize the bowl to his or her liking. Despite the fact that we usually refer to pho as "soup," it's more accurately a meal in a bowl, with all the makings of a complete lunch or dinner in a single dish. It's also one of the most economical, costing approximately $7 or $8 for a hat-size bowl.
Practically sharing a block, Superior Pho (3030 Superior Ave., 216-781-7462, superiorpho.com) and #1 Pho (3120 Superior Ave., 216-781-1176) obviously are in close competition. The latter offers a more contemporary atmosphere, with clean lines and modern décor. The restaurant's pale broth is tasty and light, and fresh bean sprouts and basil do much to perk up the dish. Many claim that Superior's broth is, well, superior, and that more attention is placed on the food than the dining room. It's all a matter of personal preference.
Some pho fans prefer the bowls at Minh Anh (5428 Detroit Ave., 216-961-9671, minh-anh.com), a pioneer in the local pho scene. A more pronounced cinnamon influence in the broth adds a homey undertone to the classic dish. Pho and Rice (1780 Coventry Rd., 216-563-1122), a newcomer to the scene, is making friends on Coventry thanks to a more than respectable offering.
Of course, we've barely scratched the surface when it comes to pho in Cleveland. Bac, Ninh Kieu, Saigon Grille, Phnom Penh, Bowl of Pho, Saigon, and Szechuan Gourmet all offer pho — and that's still not a complete list. And everybody, it seems, has his or her favorite spot.
While a big, heartwarming bowl of soup seems perfectly suited to winter, don't overlook this dish when the calendar switches over to summer. Vietnam – at least in the southern portion of the country – is often very, very hot. And there, pho is frequently enjoyed for breakfast, reminding us that this dish is delicious at all times of the day, including lunch, dinner, and perhaps best of all, late-night.
It's a given that folks crave soup when sick, and pho is a fantastic way to soothe one's ailing body. As further evidence of the elixir's medicinal properties, try a heaping dose of it the morning after a particularly "festive" night of drinking. It's got it all: salt, fat, protein, carbs, veggies, citrus, spice. Before you know it, you've slurped your way back to health.
Our suggestion? Get slurping.