Give Me a Bone: Oxtail Pho at Pho Ga So 1

There's something about chewing on a bone that's infinitely satisfying. That's what I was thinking when, after watching my friend get her hands dirty while happily devouring her oxtail, I got another side order.

The waiter looked confused. "You mean you want another bowl of pho with oxtail?" He asked. I shook my head, "No, I just want the oxtail." Still confused, he asked me if I wanted it with the broth. I guess it must have been a novel concept to him, chewing on the bone. But it's the oxtail bone that gives the pho at Pho Ga So 1 (6796 Synott Rd at Bellaire) that extra something special, that edge that will keep me coming back for more.

It's ironic, because Pho Ga So 1 literally means "number one chicken pho," and here I was eating the oxtail pho. You won't find it anywhere on the menu. Instead, it's one of the dac biet, or special items scrawled on the white eraser board on display as you step into the door.

My girlfriends and I all opted for the same thing: the small oxtail and raw veal pho, pho duoi bo, be thui, for $6.95. You can order a large bowl for $7.95, and it's definitely a better deal, but since it was our first time, we were a bit tentative.

The pho came out steamy and piping hot, with one large oxtail in each bowl.

On the side, you get a plate of raw veal (the new trend in pho) that you can add to the piping hot broth to cook it. A small saucer with a hoisin ginger sauce is provided for dipping the veal and oxtail.

"How's the broth?" I asked my friends, who were busy digging in as I took pictures. "It's so smooth!" my friend exclaimed. My other friend just nodded her head and made vague "mmm" sounds, evidently enjoying her bowl.

I didn't know what "smooth" meant until I took my first sip, and then I understood. It's hard to describe, but the broth had this soft quality. It was deep with flavor, but unlike some places that use too much star anise or ginger, which can give the broth a jarring quality, this broth was rich with the essence of the oxtail bone, sweet with the natural goodness of a well-made beef-based stock - without MSG.

I can taste the subtle differences because I always eat my pho without any added hoisin sauce or Sriracha. I just squeeze a bit of lime in it and dig in, and I can always tell if the pho broth is a good one, or a watered-down version with a lot of MSG added.

We received a generous portion of thinly sliced raw veal with each order, the veal so thin and tender it practically melted on the tongue. The oxtail was fun to eat, the meat chock full of marbling, with a smattering of tendon for some texture. A word of advice: If you're not adept with chopsticks, just pick it up with your hands. The oxtail is large and heavy, and even if you manage to pick it up with your chopsticks, it will probably fall back into the bowl and make a big splash.

The restaurant is just about a year old, so it's new, clean and large. The wooden tables still have that lacquered sheen. There are three large tables to accommodate large parties of eight or more, and at least 20 other tables for parties of two to four. Flat screen TVs (I counted five) adorned the walls, each playing something different for everyone to enjoy.

The owner is a pretty lady who is also the kitchen master. "You can't tell me what's in the broth, can you?" I asked her. She gave me an enigmatic smile, shaking her head gently, as if to let me down easily. "No, but please tell your friends about us," she said. "I will," I responded, "I definitely will."

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham