A block east of the courthouse there’s a street where half the storefronts are bail bond shops, and the other half are Vietnamese joints. That’s the kind of street I love, so it’s where I started my pho explorations.
I’m lumping all of these places together because they ended up being fairly similar. I ordered pho tai at all three, which is pho with rare-cooked sliced beef. Thai Son, the first place I tried, had the most thinly-sliced beef; it arrived raw and got cooked in the broth. It came with bean sprouts, good-quality fresh basil, noodles, and various sauces. The meat and accompaniments were all excellent but the broth seemed lacking. It was pale, salty and chicken-y, not the nuanced, flavorful stuff I remembered.
The next day I checked out a neighboring joint called Pasteur. This was a sentimental favorite because it reminded me of the venerable Pho Pasteur in Boston, where my love affair with Vietnamese food – and in particular with green bean shake – began many years ago. The beef at Pasteur was thicker, but otherwise this pho closely resembled the first one: good-quality ingredients, but a broth that seemed like a too-close cousin of College Inn chicken stock.
On day 3 I turned to the internet to search for a highly-regarded pho joint. I ended up at Pho Bang, a few blocks north. Once again, the solid components were great but the liquid was disappointing.
I began to wonder if my memory was faulty, so I googled “pho broth.” Yep: America’s Test Kitchen describes a stock with “flavor and complexity,” including ginger, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and pepper. That’s what I was missing.
My hunt for a great pho in Manhattan continues (Queens is a totally different story, but Queens is also a long slog on the train from Inwood). Oddly enough, there’s a well-respected place called Saiguette on the Upper West Side, not far from my office. Hope springs eternal! I’ll hit it and report back soon.