While New York has hardly been racing to close the pho gap, we are slowly catching up. Where in the U.S. are there better examples of this Vietnamese street-food staple? Well, Houston, New Orleans, Atlantic City, Falls Church (Virginia), and California’s Silicon Valley, to name just a few locales. All have pho of startling quality, better than anything here. Last year, I reported on a game-changing example found at Sao Mai in the East Village, but more recently stumbled on another great version in the Manhattan Valley, at a carryout called Saiguette.
What is great pho, anyhow? It begins and almost ends with the broth. In the part of Vietnam where the rice-noodle soup originated, it is said that bone-in beef is sometimes boiled for as long as five days, until even the bones melt into the soup. While this tale may be apocryphal, it does speak to the richness and labor-intensiveness of the wonderful broth. The biggest problem with New York examples is that they often seem thrown together, their stock not allowed to bubble long enough. They also tend to be unbalanced in their spicing, with cinnamon and star anise way out in front. Pho broth should be deeply flavorful but paradoxically light, amber-colored with tiny jewels of oil dancing on the surface.
Draped with a colorful banner proclaiming “Grand Opening,” Saiguette is mainly a large bustling kitchen with a carryout counter jammed in front, and a dining area limited to eight stools. If you choose to stay you’ll almost be sitting in your neighbor’s lap. But eaten in or taken out, the food always comes in carryout containers. When you order the pho ($8), the broth arrives near-boiling in a tall receptacle, while a squat plastic bowl is filled with tender cooked brisket, slender rice noodles, shaved onions, and raw steak sliced thin. Just before your pho is delivered, you can often hear the whirring of the slicer as the steak is freshly cut. This freshness means you can decide when and how much to cook the steak in the broth, rather than having it arrive half-gray.
A separate baggie contains lime wedges, bean sprouts, and pungent basil leaves, to be tossed or squeezed in at your discretion. Call it bare-bones pho, since it lacks the usual add-ins that many could do without, including tripe and tendon. (A version retaining the offal has recently been added to the menu.) Assemble the soup, still steaming, and watch a near-perfect combination of flavors and textures come together.
There are other worthwhile things at Saiguette, too. The rice-paper-wrapped summer rolls called nem chao, Texas-big and filled with steamed shrimp and pickled vegetables ($6), are luscious to look at and even better to eat. Similarly exceptional, though not particularly Vietnamese, are the round, steamed moon dumplings, which come with a choice of fillings, including a delightful pork-and-dried-shrimp rendition ($5.50). The baguette-based banh mi heroes are good, too, with a catalog of innovative fillings, of which my two favorites feature boneless chicken thighs and grilled skirt steak. (A more conventional combo of pâté and pork terrine is also available.)
Though popular all over the country, pho is often associated with Hanoi in northern Vietnam. At the bottom of the restaurant’s slender pho list, pho nam vang ($8), a soup often associated with Saigon and sometimes called hu tieu. It might have become as famous as regular pho, except there’s no standard recipe. At Saiguette—where the menu claims the soup is made from an old family recipe—the broth is silky and porky, with ribbons of egg noodle, fish balls, fish cake, shrimp, and squid added in. Instead of basil, the predominant seasoning is cilantro and scallions, with hoisin for extra oomph. It’s delectable, and quite unlike pho.
How variable is this soup? I went to Vietnamese old-timer Nha Trang Centre (148 Centre Street, 212-941-9292) in Chinatown to find out. There, the broth is fishier and more saline, with purple onions and scallions dominating the flavor and a similar seafood assortment. Surprisingly, big rounds of daikon radish cooked to creaminess constitute another component, and the noodles are mung bean threads instead of the more European egg noodles. I later learned from vietworldkitchen.typepad.com that nam vang is the Vietnamese name for Phnom Penh, meaning that the soup originally hails from that Cambodian city. The recipe given on the website is far more complex than Saiguette’s, but the basic components of seafood, pork, noodles, and a flavoring scheme more Chinese than Vietnamese prevail. If you ever tire of pho, nam vang is your ticket.