Pot au Pho
The first time I ate at the original Pho Binh on Beamer, it was a cold, foggy Saturday morning. The single-wide trailer that's home to the Vietnamese restaurant was packed. The hot beef broth and hearty rice noodle dish called pho is a favorite Vietnamese breakfast — especially in cold weather.
I had eaten at the Pho Binh location on Beechnut before. There is also one on Mangum. The newer locations have grilled items and egg rolls along with the noodles. But my pho-fanatic friends insisted that the original Pho Binh on Beamer is an experience that must not be missed.
The place is cramped and tiny. By leaning around the corner behind the cashier, I could see the giant pots of beef stock cooking on the range in the restaurant's kitchen. There were chunks of beef and whole onions floating on the surface of the soup.
On that first visit, I got the No. 6 (tai nam gau) with rare steak, brisket and crispy fat. The beef broth was rich and salty with lots of spicy aromas. Pho is traditionally made with onions and star anise, but my breakfast companion speculated that the kitchen changed the spice blend from summer to winter. She thought she detected more cinnamon in the winter broth.
The soup comes with an herb plate. I tore the basil leaves off the stalks and added them to the bowl along with a couple of wheels of fresh jalapeño and most of the bean sprouts. Then I squeezed the limes over top. The crispy fat was a slice of fatty beef that had been fried. It wasn't really all that crispy after it was submerged in the soup. The soup had a deep, satisfying homemade flavor.
I heard that Pho Binh will bring you extra fat if you request it, so I asked the waitress for some. She asked if I wanted it with green onions. I said sure. She brought me a little bowl with beef fat that had been skimmed off the soup and poured over green onions. It made the soup a little richer. I chewed up a jalapeño slice and ate the soup while my mouth and throat were on fire.
Opened in the early 1980s, the original Pho Binh in the south end of Houston is said to be the first pho restaurant in Houston. There are some rickety buildings tacked onto the original trailer. The whole thing overlooks a swampy bayou.
Outside the front door that Saturday morning, there were several men crowded around a picnic table eating their breakfast noodles and smoking cigarettes. It reminded me of descriptions I have heard about the pho stands of North Vietnam, where the dish originated. There pho is often eaten at long common tables where workers sit side-by-side slurping their noodles.
"Pho is a North Vietnamese dish," Vietnamese food expert Carl Han recently told me. [See "Banh Cuon and Bug Juice," December 17.] The history of the dish is recent and somewhat controversial.
"It wasn't introduced to South Vietnam until the 1950s. Some scholars think that the word is a mispronunciation of 'feu,' the French word for fire," Han told me.
There was a symposium on the origins of pho held in North Vietnam in 2003. A French chef named Didier Corlou, who has spent many years cooking in Hanoi, presented the theory that pho was inspired by the French dish pot au feu. I found the theory fascinating for several reasons.
First of all, I love the ancient French peasant dish called pot au feu. The term means "pot on the fire" and refers to a pot of beef stock that traditionally simmered all winter long in rural French kitchens. The pot isn't left on all winter anymore, but the boiled dinner is still a French favorite.
I had my first pot au feu dinner in Paris at a tiny red-checkered-tablecloth restaurant called Le Roi de Pot au Feu (The King of Pot au Feu). First you got a bowl of the beef consommé with bread and butter and cornichons. Then came a plate of boiled beef and carrots, potatoes, parsnips and turnips that had been cooked in the broth. They were served with coarse sea salt and mustard. On a cold winter night, with a glass of sturdy red wine, it's a wonderfully simple meal.
To support his theory, Chef Corlou pointed out that while cattle were long used as beasts of burden in Vietnam, beef wasn't eaten there until the French arrived. He also observed that both pot au feu and the stock for pho are made with marrow bones and colored with browned onions.
The theory that pho is related to pot au feu also makes sense in light of other Vietnamese borrowings. While researching Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish restaurants, I interviewed an expert on Vietnamese assimilation in Louisiana, Dr. Carl Bankston, a professor at Tulane. Bankston explained the Vietnamese penchant for syncretism, the absorption of another culture's traditions. The Vietnamese adapted to Chinese and French domination by taking parts of these cultures and making them their own, he told me. And so the Vietnamese adoption of pot au feu fits right into the pattern along with baguettes, pâté and café au lait.
The second time I ate breakfast at Pho Binh was on a frigid Thursday. I asked for No. 5 with steak, brisket and tripe (tai nam sach). But after digging around in my bowl, I couldn't find the tripe. I am guessing the waitress thought I'd made a mistake and didn't really want tripe. She evidently changed my order for me. The soup was as delicious as before.
Extra meat, noodles and meatballs are available for only a dollar at the original Pho Binh. (It's two dollars at the other two locations.) I ordered some extra meatballs, which came on the side. The meat balls, which were cut into quarters, were boring and rubbery.
There were three guys speaking Vietnamese at the table beside me. One was dressed in a ski parka with shorts and flip-flops. Another also wore sandals. I liked their style. The third guy mixed up a sauce of half hoisin and half Sriracha sauce in a saucer. He picked up his meatball pieces with his chopsticks and dipped them into this sauce.
I found the hoisin and hot sauce on my table and followed suit. The dipping sauce vastly improved the flavor of the otherwise mundane meatballs. I also noticed that the same guy was drinking both hot tea and iced Vietnamese coffee with his breakfast soup.
"It brings out the flavor of the pho," he said of his twin breakfast beverages. I remarked that the other location of Pho Binh on Beechnut at Wilcrest was closer to my house and that I usually ate over there. All three men agreed that it was worth the drive from the other side of town to eat at the original Pho Binh in the trailer beside the overgrown bayou.
Even if the pho tasted exactly the same, the colorful experience of eating an early-morning breakfast at Houston's favorite pho trailer is worth the extra effort. Be sure and ask for some extra fat. And remember to mix up some hoisin hot sauce for your meatballs.
"This place is an eyesore, but they have the best pho in town," the guy with the meatball sauce told me.
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