Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pho 97

Spring Rolls

I didn't really learn to understand pho until about ten years ago with Doc Rhee in this very place. The guy is a pho phanatic. Me? I had no idea. To me, pho was some weird noodle aberration from Vietnam, not the proper Japanese ramen that I preferred. I think the first time I went along with it because Rhee spoke so passionately about it and I had nothing else to do that fateful morning.

Back then, I was the guy passed out snoring and half-naked on the lanai futon after late nights of partying for several weeks at a time between film gigs. In those days, we'd shoot a movie for a few months, make out like bandits and then travel for a couple of months. At some point in time, I would find myself in Honolulu crashing out on the futon at the house that The Bob, Rhee and Sree shared while they were still in their medical residency.

Iced Vietnamese Coffee

This time, we're back at Pho97 with Rhee, V., DJ Un-G and Christine and the pho is as good as it ever was. Over the years, I've come to realize that pho is something unto itself. It can be deep, mysterious and complex while maintaining a strong beefy character. For me, give me pho that's chock full of the good stuff: tendons, ligaments, tripe, meatballs and whatever odd bits and ends of the cow you have lying around. If it's tender and chewy, I want it.

The secret is in broth. It needs to be rich. Deep. Soul-satisfying with a cloying hint of spiciness, but not so much as to overpower the plate of additives. A squeeze of lime to punch the acidity. Some jalapeno peppers and chili peppers to give it punch and fire. Some bitter leaves (ngo gai) and sprouts to add complexity, with basil to round it all out.

When it comes to pho, I like a bit of a ritual. I want the raw beef served on the side so that I can season it up to my liking. A little black pepper, some soy sauce, a sprinkling of Sriracha chili paste and lime juice. I let this marinade on the side while I eat the pho and then enjoy it after with a small order of steamed white rice.

Special Pho with everything and raw meat on the side.

But I like to start off with a few spoonfuls of just the plain broth to see what it's made of. This is the ultimate test. The broth must carry the pho. Too weak and the whole thing falls flat - nothing can save it. Sad to say that I've been to more than one pho joint serving weak broth and it was just disaster.

After a few sips of the broth, I like to add the lime juice. Just squeeze it in, mix it up and taste. Does the lime brighten the soup? Does it make it come alive? It should. Then I'll chop up the leafy greens and add them in with the sprouts. Mix them up, let them mingle and taste again. The flavor should build in complexity, like an orchestra pushing a crescendo. The flavor should be whole by now.

Adding chili paste and the jalapenos are mainly to produce spark and fire. I don't like adding too much, just a little to make it pop, not sizzle. I like to eat and taste my pho, not try to consume it without it burning my mouth and tastebuds further.

As always, Pho97 doesn't disappoint. It's traditional Vietnamese pho. None of this high-tech, new wave re-interpretive kind of Asian fusion stuff you see going on else. Just simple ingredients properly prepared the same way in 1998 as it is now in 2008.

In other words, it's my kind of pho joint.

Pho 97
1120 Maunakea St # 176
Honolulu, HI 96817

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