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Pho is food for the soul

All comfort foods, no matter the ethnic origin, share a soul-satisfying quality that makes you feel better even before you eat them.

If you’re feeling a little low, sick or like you’ve celebrated too much the night before, a dose of comfort food can pick you up, patch you up and get you back into the game.

If you fall into any of those categories, particularly the last one, you should become acquainted with the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. The richly aromatic broth mixed with an array of meats, spices and healthy condiments fills your senses and stomach with a goodness and well-being that usually comes from a prescription with automatic refills.

“People think pho (pronounced like the first syllable of fugettaboutit) is the name of the noodles in the soup,” said Helen Nguyen, co-owner of Pho City, a downtown Spokane restaurant specializing in a version of the soup based on family recipes. “The name, pho, refers to the aroma of the soup and the mixture of spices that goes into making it.”

The origins of the soup are a bit hazy, Nguyen said. Many think it has its roots in the deep French influence in Vietnam, an opinion she shares.

What is known is that pho’s popularity got its start as a Vietnamese street food, ladled from boiling kettles as a breakfast staple. Perhaps because Americans don’t view soup as a suitable breakfast, it’s enjoyed a growing popularity as a lunch and dinner option.

“I totally get why it’s getting so popular,” Nguyen said. “It’s so healthy and good for you. There’s nothing in there that isn’t good for you. Whether it’s pho bo (beef broth with a combination of lean and well-done beef and meatballs) or pho ga (chicken broth with shredded chicken), the only things in there beside the bones and the meat are spices, sugar and salt.

“I know that some places will include MSG, and I had a long fight with my brother when we were planning this restaurant. But it was very important to me to be able to tell people that the only ingredients in what I serve to people are spices, sugar and salt.

“Now that we’ve been open a while, he understands why I was so adamant about that and he’s just as committed to that concept as I am.”

The recipe for pho is far from complicated.

“It’s not difficult to make, but I can’t make it at home,” Nguyen said.

It’s time-consuming: “Most people just don’t have the time it takes to make it.”

A properly prepared pho broth takes care to get every ounce of flavor out of each and every ingredient.

Take pho bo as an example.

It’s 9 a.m., two hours before Pho City opens its doors, and co-owner Thu Nguyen pours water into a pair of stock pots. While the liquid comes to the boil, he places about a dozen large yellow onions on the kitchen’s grill, followed in short order by a large handful of ginger, a handful of shallots, a few large chunks of cinnamon bark and cardamom pods.

Into the boiling water of the smaller stockpot, he places about 15 pounds of beef knuckle bones, a five-pound slab of beef brisket and three stewing hens for a quick blanch.

“A lot of people are surprised that we put chicken in the pho bo,” Helen Nguyen said with a laugh. “It kind of evens out the beef broth. If you think about it, chicken broth has a sweeter taste to it. The chicken adds that sweet note to the beef broth and keeps it from being too harsh.”

As the brisket, birds and bones boil, white foam begins to form around the edge of the pot, impurities cooking out of the ingredients. Blanching before cooking insures the broth will be clear.

After blanching, the water is drained, the contents quickly rinsed and added to the other, larger pot.

The grilled onions, now peeled, go into the pot along with the rest of the cleaned, blackened ingredients, the cinnamon and cardamom pods. While the pot comes back to the boil, Thu Nguyen fills a cloth bag with roasted spices: a mix of coriander, fennel seeds and star anise.

“My brother roasts his own spices to make sure he gets all of the great flavor out of it, but he has to do it at home,” she laughs. “When he did it here, the aroma was too overpowering!”

The stock simmers for roughly seven hours, then is cooled and refrigerated for the next day’s use.

“Some restaurants keep their broth simmering on the stove all day,” Helen Nguyen explains. “We don’t do that because I think it changes the flavor of the broth. I want each bowl to taste like the last bowl. So we boil each batch to order.

“And it does have to boil. The broth has to be hot. You want a nice, hot bowl of soup and you’re going to add noodles and all the good things at the table. If it’s not boiling hot, it’s going to be cold by the time you add what you want to it.”

Ah, yes, the additions.

A proper bowl of pho arrives at the table in two parts: a steaming bowl of noodles swimming in broth with a plate filled with bean sprouts, sprigs of culantro (a relative of cilantro) and Thai basil, a few slices of fresh jalapeno pepper and a wedge of lime. At Pho City, it also comes with a small dish of house-made red chili paste, which can be spooned into the broth to add a modest amount of spicy heat.

And there are the usual table condiments: soy sauce and sriracha, a bright red hot sauce enjoying its own surge in popularity.

An enthusiastic ambassador for pho, Helen Nguyen keeps a close eye on customers to make certain they understand how it all fits together.

“That’s one of the great things about pho,” she says. “You can create it yourself. I know people who aren’t into sprouts. I have people call to ask if we serve it with culantro or with Thai basil because culantro is more traditional. And with the chili paste, you can add as little or as much as you want.”

She keeps her menu simple.

“There are things I’d love to add to the menu and I think we will over time,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is introduce people to Vietnamese cuisine the way it tastes there. My brother just moved here from Vietnam and these are our family recipes. We want to make sure that every dish is perfect, so we keep the menu simple.”

That’s not always the case with pho restaurants, she explains.

“I’ve noticed that in some areas where there are a lot of pho places, like in Los Angeles, it’s kind of taken on its own flavor profile,” Nguyen said. “It’s like the restaurants are trying to keep up with each other and not following the way we make it in Vietnam.

“We’ve had more than a couple people come in and tell us our pho tastes the way they remember it from when they had it in Vietnam. We’re proud of that.”