A Different Chicken Soup at Pho Ga Dakao

Chances are that if you've eaten pho, the popular Vietnamese soup, you've only eaten pho bo. That is, you've only eaten beef pho.

There are many reasons why beef pho is more popular than its counterpart, chicken pho, but the long and short of it is that chicken pho is finally starting to make a comeback in Vietnamese restaurants around the nation.

Before the French occupation/colonization of Vietnam, cattle were used as work animals but rarely as sources of meat. That changed when the French brought their palates to French Indochina. Pho made with beef was one of the results, although the Vietnamese have always made pho with chicken and -- in lean times -- pork, too.

Making beef pho is a time-consuming process (if you're doing it right) that includes roasted marrow bones and a long simmering of the broth before it's ready to serve. Chicken pho, on the other hand, takes far less time and is no less authentic or delicious. In fact, if you want to try it yourself, Wandering Chopsticks has a great recipe (with photos!).

But if you'd rather give the stuff a test drive before making it yourself at home this winter, head to Pho Ga Dakao (11778 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-879-5899), where you know the pho ga -- chicken pho -- is going to be good: It's right there in the name.

I headed there last week at the urging of my friend Dr. Ricky -- who said it has the best pho ga in town -- and took Robb Walsh with me, who, coincidentally, needed to run some errands in Chinatown for a batch of pho bo he was making at home later that day.

Pho Ga Dakao is somewhat off the beaten Chinatown path, being farther west than that concentration of stacked strip malls and busy parking lots closer to the Beltway. Despite this, the restaurant was packed on that Wednesday afternoon, with tables full of Vietnamese customers who appeared to be ordering one thing and one thing only: pho ga.

There are other items available here, like beef pho, bun and com dia. But as seems to be the cardinal rule with nearly every Vietnamese joint I've visited, you don't order anything except the food that's in the restaurant's name. Robb ordered the pho ga with dark meat and I went whole hog (or hen, I suppose) with the "special" pho ga that came with everything.

Everything turned out to be just that: a hard-boiled egg yolk, plenty of thick skin, chicken tripe, chicken livers, chicken gizzards, even chicken hearts. (That would be the item that Robb is holding above.) All of these chicken parts give the already fatty broth an even richer, deeper flavor that's far different from your mom's chicken soup. Add to that all the ginger, the cloves, the fresh herbs and the throat-burning amounts of Sri Racha (my own addition) and you have the recipe for the perfect winter soup if you're feeling under the weather.

Pho Ga Dakao also offers other chicken dishes, like congee -- another perfect winter soup for the weary. And since Chow is predicting that congee will be the new Asian comfort food trend for 2011, maybe places like Pho Ga Dakao will start seeing an even greater variety of crowds in the new year.

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