A relative took me to Harvard Square a few years ago and introduced me to pho. So I was already a fan of Vietnam's signature noodle soup before visiting that country a few months ago.
It's served in restaurants in pho stalls up and down the streets of every city, and has become almost as popular in some areas in the United States.
Pho (pronounced "fuh") is usually served for breakfast, but some eat it for lunch or dinner. The broth -- made from beef bones and displaying hints of anise, cinnamon, and ginger -- is simmered all day or overnight. The broth, rice noodles, and accompanying meats aren't cooked together, but assembled for each order.
My reference point is the Caravelle Hotel's restaurant in the center of Ho Chi Minh City , formerly Saigon. Using tongs, the chef grabs white rice noodles and dips them into boiling water for a few seconds, then drains the noodles and puts them in a small bowl. She puts slices of raw beef in a ladle and lowers it into the bubbling broth, then pours broth over the meat with a spoon for just a few seconds until it's cooked.
Then the beef goes over the noodles and she ladles cupfuls of the broth over the mix before handing over the bowl. Most customers season it with traditional toppings of sliced green onions, bean sprouts, mint and basil leaves, chili and hoisin sauce.
A few weeks ago, I began looking for a great pho in the Boston area. Pho used to be available at Viet Cafe in Arlington Center, but that restaurant has closed. However, you can find remarkable pho in Lowell, and at low cost.
Thanh Thanh, a small restaurant at 475 Chelmsford St. (978-453-3303), offers a savory soup similar to what I found in Vietnam. Called pho dac biet, it comes in small ($6), medium ($7), and large ($8). I ordered beef, sans the tripe and tendon, while my friend ordered chicken.
In most restaurants, the beef stock is used regardless of the accompaniment. But here, a lighter version is served with chicken. Both were filled with a large helping of rice noodles. In Vietnam, the bowls -- always white -- are small. In America, we supersize everything. The single-serving bowls at Thanh Thanh, like those at any other Vietnamese restaurant in this country, can easily feed two.
A few days later, I found Mekong Restaurant at 378 Broadway St. (978-441-6353) in a newly renovated district of Lowell. Pho, called "beef noodle soup," is $5 for what Mekong calls small. It was also flavorful, filled with noodles, and full of the rich but light brown broth.
The most extraordinary find was Pho 88 in a strip mall at 1270 Westford St. (978-452-7300) near the Chelmsford-Lowell line, where I got to chat with pho aficionados from Cambodia and Vietnam. Nearby shop owners say the place is always filled at lunch. Perhaps that's why owner Tay Ninh, from South Vietnam, is asking Lowell officials if he can expand his restaurant.
Here the most popular pho is a large bowl called xe lua ($7.20), which comes with thin-sliced rare beef, tender brisket, beef flank, tendon, and tripe. Dac biet is a smaller bowl ($6.20).
The enormous serving and the distinctive broth are as close to the Caravelle's as anything I've tasted in the States. The bowl is filled with a huge serving of noodles and slivers of beef. A dollop of hot sauce and hoisin, a handful of bean sprouts and basil, a squeeze of lime, and I was in pho heaven.
This is a place I will visit again -- and order a few other Vietnamese delicacies while I'm there.