Ann About Town: Finally Pho

Monday, February 22, 2016, 7:00 am
By: 
Ann Nichols

I have a friend who lived in Manhattan for decades and swore by the curative properties of Vietnamese pho. She claimed that the complex broth, tender rice flour noodles, and chicken could cut the duration of a cold in half, warm a person after a bus ride in a blizzard, and heal a broken heart if consumed before a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby.

She lives in Iowa these days, and I’m not sure if she can still get pho. But after all those years of hearing about the Miracle Soup, I can, and so can you, because pho has come to East Lansing and is available at the eponymous restaurant Pho on Albert Avenue.

A few things about pho: it’s pronounced “fuh,” a fact which my regular dining companion, Captain Carnivore, refuses to believe. (It is, nevertheless, true.) It’s a breakfast food in parts of Vietnam, and a common street food.

When pho is made well, the broth is a far cry from your standard chicken or beef broth, and often includes spices like star anise and cinnamon. It’s not spicy, really, just deep and complex. Into the broth goes the meat of your choice (Pho offers beef, pork, chicken oxtail and shrimp) as well as a bouquet of toppings including bean sprouts, cilantro, jalapenos, and Thai basil. Sesame oil and Sriracha are on all of the tables.

On our inaugural lunch date at Pho, Captain Carnivore ordered the Pho with rare beef and flank steak, and I ordered the version with flame-broiled sliced pork. Both were served very quickly. A separate dish of cilantro leaves, Thai basil, slices of jalapeno, lime wedges, and mung bean sprouts arrived separately.

Here’s how you do pho: taste the broth first before seasoning. Then add whatever you like from the “garnishes” (which aren’t really garnishes but ingredients). If you choose cilantro and/or basil, tear them a little before dropping them onto your soup so more flavor is released, and try to let them float rather than mixing them into the hot broth.

The other vegetables are tougher (the sprouts are mainly for crunch rather than flavor) and may be stirred in to your heart’s content. In my highly biased opinion, you should skip the sesame oil and Sriracha, which tend to cover up the flavors in a carefully made broth. But you’re on your own with pho. I seasoned my broth mainly with cilantro, basil and lime while the Captain added all the jalapenos to his own bowl. We were both pleased with the results.

If you have the dexterity, you can eat broth with a spoon in your non-dominant hand while eating noodles and other ingredients with chopsticks held in your dominant hand. If not, it’s perfectly fine to use just the “main” hand to alternate spoon and sticks, broth and noodle-y stuff. If chopsticks aren’t in your wheelhouse, it’s also perfectly okay to eat everything with a spoon. The important thing is to get food into your mouth.

East Lansing's Pho is a no-nonsense space, and fairly small but not at all claustrophobic. The majority of the menu features soup, but there are also several varieties of spring rolls, egg rolls, crab rangoon, potstickers, chicken wings, and both chicken and shrimp salads. There were no children in evidence when we were there, but even kids unfamiliar with pho itself could eat chicken wings and spring rolls while being initiated with sips of broth and a bite of noodle. Pho is, after all, really just noodle soup.

All offerings at Pho seem to involve meat, including the broth. The only vegetarian item on the menu is a vegetarian spring roll, and nothing appears to be vegan-friendly. Rice noodles don’t usually contain wheat gluten, but if gluten is an issue it would be a wise precaution to ask about the ingredients in the broth.

Pho is located at 350 Albert Avenue.