Austin pho makes warm, hearty treat on cold days

Karin Samelson

When it comes to comfort food, pho has it down. The Vietnamese soup (pronounced “fuh”) is rich with flavor and will satisfy any hunger pains with huge bowls that are overflowing with broth that can be flavored with beef, seafood, pork, vegetable or chicken, noodles and vegetables. The authentic full-flavored soup is not a simple thing to achieve because of the approximately four hours it takes to allow for simmering and preparation, and some restaurants in Austin excel over others.

The first pho restaurant opened up in Hanoi, Vietnam in the 1920s. It is said that the soup was first invented when cooks searched for ways to incorporate both Vietnamese and French cuisine. A French aspect of the dish that is different from other Vietnamese recipes is that the onions are charred for flavor. Vietnamese features of the dish include the type of meats and various garnishes that are used.

“Charring or roasting the onions and ginger gives you a wonderfully mellow and naturally sweet flavor,” Jaden Hair, a professional recipe developer, explains on her blog Steamy Kitchen.

Even though some of us are less inclined to pick up a pair of tongs and char onions over an open flame, which is only one small step in the cooking process, there are plenty of restaurants around town that boast authentic Vietnamese pho. The taste of a deep beef broth made from hours of simmering bones is something that can’t be substituted when trying to find an exceptional bowl of soup: It tastes salty, sweet and hearty.

The bowl consists of crunchy vegetables on top of slices of flank steak, brisket or whatever meat you desire on top of rice noodles all swimming in a pool of succulent broth. Just talking about it doesn’t do it justice; it’s in your best interest to save pho for an empty stomach and a cold day to try it yourself.

Hands down, the best pho in Austin is from Pho Saigon Noodle House on North Lamar Boulevard. The restaurant is part of a chain from Houston, but don’t let the word “chain” fool you. Natives as well as first-timers can agree that the flavorful broth, endless amount of condiments like bean sprouts, cilantro, basil and limes and super-quick service are all bonuses to dining outside of the boundaries of downtown Austin.

One great aspect of the dining experience at Pho Saigon is the economical price: You can get a huge bowl of soup and leave a tip for under $10.

“The food cost has challenged us as business is concerned, but we’ve maintained a price point. We’re doing OK because of the volumes we produce but it becomes a challenge every day because we want a good product for a really good price,” said Pat Lee, owner of Pho Saigon.

Lee has just opened up another Vietnamese restaurant, PhoNatic Vietnamese Cuisine, on Anderson Lane that has a more “fast-food” style where you order at the counter and take a number to your table. He uses his take on family recipes to make the flavors slightly different from Pho Saigon, while maintaining great tastes.

“It’s always so busy here [at Pho Saigon.] There is always a line during lunchtime. But it’s worth the tiny wait you’ll have, because the moment you sit down you’ll be in food heaven,” said Susan Ross, a guest at Pho Saigon.

For a more sophisticated experience, Elizabeth Street Café, a restaurant that opened this past December on South First Street, provides Vietnamese creations ranging from banh mi sandwiches to authentic bowls of pho. The setting is more elegant than the average Vietnamese dive and the wait staff is educated in the cuisine.

The restaurant offers their take on several authentic dishes that leave much to be desired, but the recipes definitely shine when it comes to their pho. The broth is thick and hearty and all the usual condiments are there. What’s not so appealing is the price; the cheapest bowl they have is $12.

“I’ve eaten pho at a million different places and this is by far the most expensive bowl of pho I’ve ever eaten. Is there gold in the soup that I don’t know about?” said Eric Pham, a guest at Elizabeth Street Café.

Pho Thaison is a quick fix when you’re close to campus, with its convenient location right on the Drag and affordable prices. But if you can avoid the overly greasy bowls for some cleaner tasting broth, take the drive to Pho Saigon where authenticity reigns supreme. You don’t have to be Vietnamese to appreciate the taste and the runny noses caused from putting too much Sriracha in the broth.

“I grew up with a family in the Asian business; we’ve done everything old school. All the pho restaurants in Austin were really hole-in-the-wall when I was young. We’re just trying to make things more mainstream,” Lee said.

Printed on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 as: Whatcha Waiting Pho: Vietnamese restaurants offer authentic treat