The Super Soup

The veteran cooks at Pho 75 know how to fine-tune the broth of the soup known as "Vietnamese penicillin." Photographs by Matthew Worden.

“No one cooks pho at home,” says Dung Phan, manager of the original Arlington location of Pho 75. “It’s cheaper to eat it here. We go through about four or five pots of broth each day.” And how many bowls? “We’re like McDonald’s—we stopped counting.”

It’s a typically busy Sunday in the kitchen at Pho 75, where 80-gallon pots are bubbling with an aromatic beef broth. In recent years, pho parlors have sprung up all over Maryland and Virginia, but the most enduring name in pho is this cafeteria-style operation with eight outposts—three in Virginia, two in Maryland, and three in Philadelphia.

Diners can personalize their bowls of pho with lime, basil, and fiery Sriracha sauce.

Phan, a small man with an infectious smile, says the secret is the meat: “We don’t mind paying for the best beef. And not every cut goes into the broth. Tendon and tripe make it too smelly, too oily. Some places just throw everything in there.” He also credits his veteran cooks, who know instinctively when the broth has too much fat or not enough clove or anise seed.

Phan’s friends Thiep Le and Binh Ngo fled Vietnam in 1975 and ten years later named their first pho shop in honor of that epochal year. Phan, a former engineer, switched careers when Le and Ngo convinced him to join the business in 1998. “We all came as refugees,” he says.

The owners of Pho 75 aimed to attract a broad customer base without dumbing down the flavors they grew up with. To their delight, Americans took to the big bowls of soothing noodle soup, often dubbed Vietnamese penicillin. In Vietnam, pho is a common breakfast, but Americans don’t show up much in the mornings—unless they’ve had too much to drink the night before. “They say it’s the best cure for a hangover,” Phan laughs.

It remains, for others, the homiest of dishes—even if no one makes it at home.

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This article appeared in the 100 Best Bargain Restaurants section of the June, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.  

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