HOUSTON – Houston is a very diverse city with a strong Vietnamese community. Because of this, many Houstonians are familiar with Vietnamese dishes like pho, which can be found in small cafes and restaurants throughout the city. Never heard of pho? It’s a magical broth that cures ailments ranging from the common cold to hangovers. In all seriousness, it’s a pho-reaking good soup that I always order whenever I’m feeling under the weather.
But while I love pho, I don’t know much about it or how it’s made. We, myself and Houston Life Photographer Paul Shelton, took a trip to Pho Houston in the Copperfield neighborhood to get the 411 on pho and other staple Vietnamese dishes like bánh mì from the owner, Vu Nguyen and our mutual friend Linda Nguyen of Linda’s Tropical Fruits.
“Our family moved to the States in 2001. We have been working in the restaurant industry since 2005, so it’s been a big part of my life,” said Vu.
We had a comical mix up in scheduling the shoot, as Linda had originally thought we’d be filming at Vu’s mom’s eatery Viva Restaurant. We laughed it off, and arrived relatively on time at Pho Houston, but I had actually been to Vu’s mom’s restaurant many times growing up, so I was excited to see if the apple fell close to tree. I’m happy to say it did.
“I grew up in Saigon, so the culture of street food is very strong there. In Vietnam, pho is on every corner, just like McDonald’s here,” said Vu. “I feel like by doing the same things, we could resemble the feeling that we have from our country - from using the fresh ingredients to the focus on the meals and the people.”
Like all good pho, Vu’s broth is stewed with bone marrow for more than 13 hours. It was rich, aromatic and full of complex flavors. The really special thing about Vu’s pho, and really the entire menu at Pho Houston is simple, high quality ingredients. For the pho protein, Vu uses only halal meat, which he preps in a traditional way. You can also taste the difference in the noodles, which were so velvety smooth, they practically melted in our mouths. I told Linda how blown away I was by the texture of the noodles, and she explained that it was probably because I had been ordering them wrong.
“The magic to that noodle is that when you order, just ask them ‘Don’t cook the noodle,’” said Linda. “When you go home, you heat up your broth, put in your meat and the last thing you do is you put in that noodle. That noodle will be perfect just like this.”
While the main attraction at Pho Houston was of course the pho, I also couldn’t get enough of their bánh mì. I had planned to only eat a couple bites for the camera and save the rest for later, but I ended up wolfing down the whole sandwich.
“The hottest street food in Vietnam is bánh mì,” said Linda. “You wake up in the morning, you’re going to hear the lady going, walking around selling them with her cart go ‘Bánh mì! Bánh mì!’ That’s what it is.”
Bánh mì is served on a French baguette, typically with pork, pâté and a variety of vegetables. Vu touched on the history of bánh mì a bit, explaining that it was a product of France’s colonization of Vietnam.
I look for two things when eating bánh mì: good bread and good pâté. Pho Houston delivers on both counts, sourcing fresh bread from a French bakery in Midtown and making their own pâté in-house.
Vu keeps the menu at Pho Houston simple, opting for quality over quantity. In addition to serving high quality traditional Vietnamese food, he hopes to introduce more people to Vietnamese culture by featuring a rotating menu of fusion dishes. Vu wants his Vietnamese food to be approachable, and to him, the best way to bridge the gap between cultures is fusion food. So if you want to learn more about Vietnamese culture and try some great food along the way, you know where to go.
For the full interview, watch the video below. To connect with Pho Houston, visit the Pho Houston website.