On every table in good Vietnamese restaurants sits a caddy of bottled reinforcements. Sriracha, with its seething yet familiar embrace. Hoisin, with its barbecue-y allure. Nuoc mam, or fish sauce, with its taunting funk. Use them all, with caution, and you may be rewarded.
Throughout the 30 or so (and counting) pho restaurants scattered throughout the Twin Cities, the uses — and payoffs — of condiments will vary. Broth too thin? Add some Sriracha, maybe a dab of nuoc mam. Too salty? A few lashings of sweet hoisin are just the trick.
At Pho 400, a New Brighton Vietnamese eatery just off Old Highway 8, these bottles will tempt you, especially with soothing '80s love ballads lulling in the background. Don't give in.
You'll discredit the care they've taken to produce these enormous, steaming bowls of pho, which are unceremoniously wheeled out in utility carts, leaving a trailing scent of star anise, cinnamon and cloves.
And you'll muddy the astounding clarity of their broths.
Going clean isn't necessarily a benchmark for excellence. But it is reminiscent of a style of pho more common in certain regions of Vietnam. In the Twin Cities, this style is rare. More likely you'll find variations of southern pho, which is headier, sweeter. The north, by contrast, prefers subtlety — enough to forgo traditional accoutrements, like bean sprouts, basil and lime.
Pho 400's owner, Hong Phan, isn't from northern Vietnam — until emigrating to the area 15 years ago, she lived in Ho Chi Minh City in the south — but her love of pho spanned borders.
"I ate pho every single day," Phan recalls of her time in Vietnam. Despite not having any formal culinary background, Phan knew she could still add to the rich Vietnamese food scene in the Twin Cities.
With the help of her mother, Phan taught herself how to make pho broth — all variations of it. After opening Pho 400 five years after landing here, she continued to dabble and tweak with abandon, customer feedback in tow. Lessons were learned. The one that resonated the most: no shortcuts.
To make a broth taste long-labored, Phan simmers — not boils — her broths for more than 24 hours, long past the typical six-hour threshold, with a smorgasbord of beef bones. That may be why her thin but substantial broths can still moisten your lips with sticky gelatin. Their sweetness? Tempered yet faint from charred ginger and onion. MSG is used sparingly.
Her noodles are springy, as they should be, and her proteins bountiful with beef and its trimmings. Pho Dac Biet, or "Number 16," is the best introduction to Phan's altar of pho. It includes lean but tender beef, well-done flank, brisket, soft tendon, tripe and chewy beef balls ($11.79).
You may also consider Phan's equally excellent BBH, or Bun Bo Hue, spicy, thick rice noodles stewed in a beef and pork broth ($11.79). Typically, fatter rice noodles are used, as they are at Pho 400. Pork hock fortifies the broth and lends the kind of carnal, appealing heft that will humble both spice and flavor hounds.
So do her chicken wings ($7.49), the skins of which crackle and shatter as you bite in, and are seasoned with enough salt and pepper to swell your arteries. They're as addictive as any high-profile, marquee fried chicken that I've tried across my travels.
Order as you wish. But first-timers must go straight for the pho to fully appreciate every nuance of it. Where others shout, Pho 400, with its unsung broths, whispers. So listen closely: It'll be as close to perfect as you can get in the Twin Cities.
400 Old Hwy. 8 NW., New Brighton, 651-633-9480, pho400.com. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Tue.-Sun.
Quang Restaurant: Quang describes itself as no frills, but the warm lighting, wood-beam ceilings and mass appeal say otherwise. Maybe it's the accessibility to pickup and delivery. Over 10 or so delivery orders from the restaurant, I've never been let down by the textbook appeal of Quang's deeply fragrant and funky pho broths. They transport well and taste even better after a quick simmer on the stove. Of the many pho restaurants in town, Quang is most serious when it comes to the quality of their beef, which arrives pitch-perfectly rare and thinly sliced. Also worth exploring: their terrific, housemade desserts.
2719 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-870-4739, quang-restaurant.com, Open 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat., 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon., Wed.-Fri. Closed Tue.
Pho 79: Much of the renown surrounding Pho 79 in Minneapolis comes from the 19 restorative pho broths on offer, most of which are priced at $9.99. Pho novices are likely to be overwhelmed. The more adventurous will likely appreciate the appeal of Pho Do Bien ($11.99), the seafood variety, as it is one of the best of its kind in the Twin Cities. Still, purists needn't worry: The sweetness of Pho 79's broths are still a notch below what's typically offered across the Twin Cities, yet remain meaty and deeply flavorful. Noodles are never gummy, even after being steeped in broth. Go for the restaurant's eponymous classic (lean beef, flank, brisket, tendon, tripe meatballs, $10.99) and you won't miss a beat.
2529 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-4602, pho79mpls.com, Open Fri.-Wed., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Thu.