Living in Manhattan, I developed a serious ramen habit. There was a chain of Japanese noodle shops there called Larmen Dosanko, and I visited them at least weekly—sometimes more frequently—for big bowls of soup with ramen. When I moved to Utah, I was shocked to not find a single Japanese noodle shop. Ramen withdrawal was painful. But then, I discovered pho—and all was right with the world.
Pho—which rhymes with duh, not d’oh—is the national dish of Vietnam. It’s a ubiquitous street food there, where many people eat it daily. Pho begins with broth made typically from beef or ox bones, to which rice noodles and meat or sometimes chicken are added. Standard accompaniments include sliced hot chili peppers, bean sprouts, Thai basil and sometimes cilantro; many cooks add the cilantro to the pho just before serving. Most restaurants here serve pho in two sizes: large and small (although the “small” isn’t usually very small). The large size usually costs about a buck more than the small, and most local pho runs about $6.50-$8.
Well, I’m happy to report that there is fabulous pho to be found nearby. Here are five pho emporiums worth seeking out.
Walking into La-Cai Noodle House (961 S. State, Salt Lake City, 801-322-3590, LaCaiNoodleHouse.com) on State Street is like stepping from night into day. From the outside, the place looks like a dive. Inside, it’s gorgeous—and frequently mobbed during lunch. But service is fast and friendly, and tables turn quickly. It’s worth a wait. La-Cai features both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, with some of the best pho in town.
That said, there isn’t the wide variety of meats offered for pho that you see in most restaurants. Here, the options are limited to rare beef, beef meatballs, chicken or vegetables. Most restaurants tend to also have brisket, tendon, tripe and flank. I tried the rare beef and meatball combination and found the meatballs to be a bit tough and chewy, but the broth was rich and flavorful and the thinly sliced beef was tender and rosy pink, as it should be. With pho, the beef is added at the last possible instant and is delicately cooked in the broth, literally on the way to the table. A nice bonus at La-Cai is that there is an interesting and eclectic wine list, not something you normally find with pho.
One of my very favorite appetizers is the goi cuon at Pho Green Papaya (2000 W. 3500 South, West Valley City, 801-886-1548, GreenPapayaUtah.com). It’s a pair of chilled spring rolls with shrimp, xa xiu pork, vermicelli noodles, greens and mint wrapped up in a translucent rice noodle wrapper, accompanied by a heavenly peanut dipping sauce. Equally tempting is the pork, which is marinated in lemongrass and garlic, then skewered and grilled with Thai shallots and coriander. The pho here has a wonderful aroma with hints of cinnamon and a slightly more noticeable star anise flavor than the other versions I tried. Especially pleasing to me though, since I’m not fond of cilantro, was that this was the only pho I sampled that didn’t have at least some cilantro in it—just thinly sliced onions, oodles of noodles, scallions and tender, rare beef in a deeply flavored broth. If you’re in the mood for something other than pho, I highly recommend the crispy chili-garlic tofu with pan-seared green beans, onions and carrots. It’s delicious.
In contrast to Pho Green Papaya, the pho at Layton’s Kim Long (1664 N. Woodland Park Drive, Layton, 801-779-9586 ) restaurant is swimming with cilantro. But that didn’t prevent me from slurping up every last drop of their rich-tasting pho; I’ve become pretty adept at picking out cilantro strands with my chopsticks. At Kim Long, I ordered pho that the menu termed “The Learner,” with silky noodles and a combination of sliced steak, flank, tendon and tripe. It was excellent. However, on my next visit I might branch out and try some of the Vietnamese beef and seafood dishes called nuong vi, which are grilled right at your table. By the way, this restaurant has cold beer available.
One of the most appealing things about Pho Chau (2470 S. Redwood Road, West Valley City, 801-975-1050), for me, is the owners. Lam and his wife, Chau—for whom the restaurant is named—are outgoing, friendly hosts, aided in the service department by Lam’s sister. Pho Chau, located in the Latino Mall on Redwood Road, is surrounded by Hispanic stores and eateries. But the attraction here is all Asian—wonderfully flavorful pho and other Vietnamese dishes. The broth is a bit lighter than some, but still complex, with flavors of cinnamon and cloves, spring onions, cilantro and, of course, beef sliced so thin you can almost see through it. And, Pho Chau offers a pho “happy hour” on weekdays, with pho priced at $4.99.
Like Pho Chau, Pho Tay Ho (1766 S. Main, Salt Lake City, 801-466-3650) is a family affair, where even the owner’s daughter is enlisted to wait tables. It’s cozy, located in a small house, and is inevitably packed with pho lovers. Unlike the other restaurants discussed here, this one is pretty much a pho-only operation, with 15 pho variations and just a smattering of additional dishes. That’s how seriously owner Huong Mai takes pho. The delectable broth made with beef bones simmers overnight and comes to the table clear (pho done right is never cloudy) and piping hot, with hints of cinnamon and, I think, allspice. There are an abundance of good places to find pho along the Wasatch front, but this is one of the best—pho real.
Do you have a favorite pho? We'd love to hear about it.