“The most important part of the pho is the broth,” Corlou said, “and because it takes so long to cook, it’s difficult to make at home. You need strong bones and meat—oxtail and marrow-filled shinbones—and before being cooked they should be blanched and rinsed so the soup will be very clear. And you must not skim off all of the fat. Some is needed for flavor.”
The cooking should be done at an almost imperceptible simmer, or what cooks sometimes describe as a “smile.” (One instruction advises that the soup simmer overnight for at least 12 hours, with the cook staying awake to add water lest the broth reduce too much.) Only then does one pay attention to the width (about a quarter-inch) of the flat, silky rice noodles, and to the combination of greens, the freshness of the beef and, finally, to the golden-brown knots of fried bread, all added just moments before the pho is served. Despite his stringent rules, Corlou is not against the variations of pho that come with distance from Hanoi; in Saigon, far to the south, it’s closer to the pho usually found in the United States, sweetened with rock sugar and full of mung bean sprouts and herbs, both rarely seen in the north.
A tasting dinner that night at La Verticale included Philharmonic president Zarin Mehta and his wife, Carmen; Gilbert and his mother; pianist Emanuel Ax; and Eric Latzky, the orchestra’s director of communications. We were served about a dozen French-Vietnamese creations, including two haute phos, a rather mild one based on salmon with an astringent hint of coriander and another enriched with superb local foie gras, black mushrooms and crunchy cabbage.
The next day, Corlou guided a group of us through the teeming, winding aisles of the Hang Be market, close to willow-rimmed Hoan Kiem Lake, a habitat of Sunday strollers and early-morning practitioners of tai chi. He pointed out various fruits—among them seed-filled dragon fruit and russet, spiky-skinned rambutans—and introduced us to banana flowers, the pale mauve blossoms and creamy-white slivers of trunk shaved from newly sprouted banana trees. Dark gray, spotted snake-like fish swam in tanks, hard-shelled crabs writhed in their boxes, slices of pork sausages sizzled on grills and live rabbits and chickens plotted escapes from their cages. As lunchtime neared, market workers stretched out on cloths they draped over crates and mounds of produce and snoozed, their conical straw hats shielding their faces from light and flies. Hanging over all was the almost stifling fragrance of ripe tropical fruit, cut flowers and pungent spices, sharpened by the nose-twitching scents of nuoc mam sauce and medicinally sour-sweet lemon grass.
I sought pho recommendations from United States Ambassador Michael W. Michalak and his wife, Yoshiko. During a reception for the orchestra at the U.S. Embassy, a villa in the 20th-century palatial style, they introduced us to Do Thanh Huong, a local pho buff who owns two fashion gift shops named Tan My. With her recommendations added to Corlou’s, we expected easy success in our forays, and, when it came to pho ga, we had no problems.
But looking for pho bo at midday proved a mistake. Hungrier by the minute, we searched out such recommended pho redoubts as Pho Bo Ly Beo, Pho Bat Dan, Pho Oanh and Hang Var, only to find each shuttered tight. Thus we learned the hard way that the beefy broth is traditionally a breakfast or late-night dish, with shops opening between 6 and 8 a.m. and again around 9 or 10 at night.
The next day, Gilbert and I were disappointed by a pallid, salty and inept pho bo at a much-recommended branch of a slick, trendy Saigon chain, Pho24; we dubbed it McPho. For the rest of our days in Hanoi, we rose early to find excellent pho in the stalls that had been closed to us at lunch. We also discovered Spices Garden, a very good Vietnamese restaurant in the restored Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, the historic hotel once patronized by Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin. There a verdant, abundant pho bo is part of the lunchtime buffet (no surprise, since Didier Corlou was the chef at the hotel for 16 years, until 2007). On the second and final night of the Philharmonic’s engagement, the audience included a large number of children whose parents had brought them to hear the Brahms Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, with featured violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. Tetsuji Honna, the Japanese music director of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, explained to me that the violin is the most popular instrument for children in Asia to learn.
After the concert, Honna and one of his violinists, Dao Hai Thanh, invited me to try some late-night pho in the old quarter of Hanoi around Tong Duy Tan Street. Here young Vietnamese gather at long tables at a variety of stalls where meats and vegetables are cooked over table grills or dipped into hot pots of seething broth.
Our destination was Chuyen Bo, a pho stall with stools so low that Honna had to pile three atop one another for me to sit on. The choice of ingredients was staggering: not only eight kinds of greens, tofu, soft or crisp noodles, but also various cuts of beef—oxtail, brisket, shoulder, kidneys, stomach, tripe, lungs, brains—plus cooked blood that resembled blocks of chocolate pudding, a pale pink meat described to me as “cow’s breast” (finally decoded as “udder”) and a rather dry, sinewy-looking meat that one of the workers, pointing to his groin, said was “from a man.” I was relieved to learn that the ingredient in question was a bull’s penis. I opted instead for a delicious if conventional pho of oxtail and brisket. But later I worried that I had missed an opportunity. Perhaps udder and penis pho might have made a more stirring, not to mention memorable, finale to my quest. Maybe next time. Pho better or pho worse.
Mimi Sheraton has been a food writer for over 50 years. She has written more than a dozen books, including the 2004 memoir Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life.