Ever tried something for the first time and immediately felt like smacking yourself in the forehead?
Sometimes, that's because you realize it was a bad idea—for example, sticking your tongue on an icy flagpole. But sometimes, that's because you realize that you've been missing out for years on something wonderful. That's how I felt when I finally tasted the Vietnamese noodle soup called pho a couple of weeks ago.
We have a delightful feature about pho in the March issue of Smithsonian, cleverly reported from Hanoi by veteran food writer Mimi Sheraton (we also have a great video about Hanoi's pho scene embedded here). As she notes, although most Americans pronounce the word the way it looks ("foe"), the Vietnamese pronunciation "is somewhere between 'fuh' and 'few', almost like the French feu, for fire."
Sheraton explains that pho typically involves "slim and slippery rice noodles" served in a steaming broth of beef (pho bo) or chicken (pho ga), seasoned with things like fish sauce, shallots, ginger, cinnamon, chilies, basil, coriander and lime. Depending on the type, it may feature slivers of beef, tofu, vegetables, or egg, and is often served with a condiment platter of fresh herbs and mung bean sprouts to add as you eat.
"It is that contrast of seasonings—sweet and spicy, salty, sour and bitter, hot and cool—that makes this simple soup so intriguing to the palate," she writes.
After reading proofs of Sheraton's article, several of the editors here found ourselves hankering for a pho lunch (even though, as Sheraton learned, pho is traditionally a breakfast or late-night food in Vietnam), so we headed to a place called Pho 14 in DC's Columbia Heights neighborhood.
I felt like a bit of a bumpkin for admitting that it was my first time tasting pho, but as it turned out, I wasn't the only one. Most of us approached the menu with the same curious confusion, wondering aloud as we perused nearly two dozen options: Large or regular? Does "soft tendon" taste better than it sounds? And what the heck is "bible tripe?"
I chose the pho chay, a vegetarian broth featuring bright, crunchy broccoli and carrots, meaty mushrooms and tofu amid the tender noodles; a few squirts of spicy sriracha made it perfect. Most of my colleagues went for variations on beef pho. No one was eager to stomach the bible tripe (what, with all the puns in Sheraton's piece, I can't get away with one?) after hearing a description of it (thanks to someone's iPhone), but the eye of round, brisket and skirt flank were popular.
There was plenty of slurping and splashing as we dove in with chopsticks and shallow porcelain spoons, squeezing limes and tearing basil with our hands—followed by groans of "oh, I can't finish all this!" We agreed that it was much more fun than an ordinary lunch, and a steal at less than $10 a bowl.