On any given day, heads are bowed and hovering over steaming bowls of fragrant beef broth and noodles. They're eating pho, which many consider to be the national dish of Vietnam. Here in Houston, pho can be found in every part of town and is as everyday as a juicy burger or street taco. There are five points to note when finding a satisfying bowl of pho:
1. Clarity and depth of broth
2. Texture and done-ness of noodles
3. Quality and quantity of proteins presented in the soup
4. Freshness and variety of accompanying herbs/sprouts/extras
The Houston Press did the "hard" work, visiting ten restaurants with pho that hits every mark and happy to report our findings. These are not listed by any order of preference.
Pho Binh Trailer, 10928 Beamer
The original location of Pho Binh is a great place to start. The broth is clear, fatty and flavorful. Noodles are cooked perfectly on the al dente side. The tai (rare eye of round) can be ordered on the side so that it does not overcook on its journey from the tiny kitchen to your table. Appropriately accompanied by fresh basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, a wedge of lime, sliced jalapenos and cilantro, which is rarely found. This is one of only two places visited to serve fresh cilantro on the side, in addition to, the chopped cilantro in the bowl. The Press voted Pho Binh Trailer the Best Pho in 2010.
Pho Saigon, 2808 Milam in Midtown
A regular bowl of pho dac biet (special pho, with a variety of beef) is loaded with finely chopped green onion and cilantro. At $7.62, the value can't be beat. The clear broth smells of star anise, cloves and beef and comes with plenty of meat, a good portion of noodles and a stacked plate of fresh basil, cilantro and sprouts. Pho Saigon continues to be one of the favorite pho spots in Houston.
Pho Ga Dakao, 11778 Bellaire
The only non-beef bowl to make this list, yet truly deserving of its place on a best of list, the pho ga (chicken pho) at Pho Ga Dakao is sweet, savory and comforting. A separate stock for chicken pho is created from boiling down chicken bones, ginger, anise and a plethora of other spices. Diners can choose to add rough cuts of dark or white meat to their bowls. The dac biet bowl comes with chicken heart, gizzards, strips of skin and a soft-boiled egg yolk. For an even more interesting twist on this pho, bowls can be ordered "dry" with the broth arriving in a smaller side bowl. The broth can be slowly added to each bite or not at all and simply sipped spoon by spoon separately. One of the best parts of eating pho is that the diner can construct an entirely unique experience by adding the sides and sauces of their own choosing. This pho ga made the Houston Press list of 100 Favorite Dishes in 2011.
Pho Viet, 13614 Bellaire, suite D10
The address reads Bellaire, but the storefront is found on Wilcrest. This tucked away noodle shop is a nice little surprise. The pho dac biet is a great value at $7.95. This broth is sweeter and deeper than other broths, yet not as clear. The aroma swirling from the bowl as it arrived at the table is intoxicating. The noodles are perfectly cooked on the al dente side. The only thing lacking is the side of herbs, which came with only a few sprigs of basil, sprouts, jalapenos and lime. Usually, when there is no cilantro or culantro on the side, a ton of it is chopped and floating atop the bowl.
A hearty, beefy broth is waiting at Huynh in EaDo. One of the more expensive bowls on the list, but definitely worth it. A bowl of pho dac biet is $8.95 with an additional $1.50 for bo vien (meatballs). There is an authenticity in the flavor of this broth. The tendon is tender and loads of sliced green, purple and white onion complete the pho. Served alongside is a generous selection of fresh cilantro, basil and sprouts.
Pho Binh 4 By Night, 12148 Bellaire, suite 101
This ten-table, hole-in-the-wall could easily be overlooked but made our radar because every now and then, a late night craving for pho rumbles in the belly after 10 p.m. Open until midnight during the week and until 3 a.m. on the weekends, this joint consistently delivers a clear, flavorful broth with an abundance of proteins and fresh herbs. At $7.75 for a large bowl, it is a great value. Try the side of nuoc beo (fatty marrow broth), an off-the-menu item that heightens this experience to another level of deliciousness.
Pho Danh, 11209 Bellaire, suite C-25 inside Hong Kong City Mall
This long-time favorite in Chinatown still serves an excellent bowl of pho. The broth is deep, darker, yet still clear. A dac biet bowl comes with more than enough meat, the bo vien (meatballs) are cut in half, still leaving them larger than most other pho restaurant's meatballs (which are sliced thinly or quartered). The accompanying plate of herbs is impressively stacked. On this occasion, the noodles were a bit soft and overcooked. The large bowl is $7.75 and the communally set tables are usually packed.
Pho & Crab Restaurant, 11660 Westheimer, suite 129
This is the newest place on the list, boasting a spectacular bowl of pho dac biet. Before the bowl arrived, the familiar aromatic smells lead the way to the table. The red onion is pristinely sliced and the server suggested ordering the eye of round separate for a rare to medium rare delivery of the meat. The delightful side of fresh herbs came with a sauce bowl of house-made sate chili paste. Coming in at $11, it is by far the most expensive bowl encountered. As far as a measure of value, quality and quantity, it is well worth the price.
Pho Duy, 6968 Wilcrest
The meatiest bowl on the list is found at Pho Duy. The dac biet is overwhelmingly full of the usual suspects. The tendon, brisket, eye of round and meatballs dominate the bowl. The broth is incredibly clear and taste sweet and beefy. There is just the right amount of fattiness in the broth yet there are no visibly oily golden circles floating on the surface. The large special combination bowl is $7.95.
Pho Dien, 11830 Bellaire, suite C
There was a wait for a table and chatter among the crowd outside about a fear that the restaurant would run out of pho. A few minutes later, an older gentlemen came out to turn a sign on the door that notified customers to try its second location down the road at Kirkwood and Bellaire.
We opted to try again another day. After a 20 minute wait, a seat became available at one of its communal tables. A fellow diner across the table suggested the marinated eye of round on the side. The bowl is huge. $7.75 buys a large bowl of seriously good Vietnamese comfort food. The fatty brisket is the most tender piece of meat in the bowl until the lime-marinated beef hit. There are not enough words to describe the first spoonful of noodle, broth and beef together. The man sitting across the table comes here at least two or three times a week. He says that Pho Dien is his favorite and he always picks up the bowl to slurp up all the broth. The broth is a perfectly executed beefy and fatty broth. The noodles are al dente and there is enough meat to include a piece in each bite.
With cooler weather around the corner, Houstonians will flock to their go-to places for pho. One of these ten pho restaurants are probably favorites already, but if not, definitely check them out.
Let us know about other "pho-nomenal" places in your neighborhood and it may make the list next time around.