What the Pho?
There aren't any. You want Vietnamese type food, you must cook it at home. (It's also true of Chinese food, if you want anything much more than chow mein and stir-fried salchichas or pollo agri-dulce. But that's another story.)
We are big fans of Vietnamese cuisine. Back in Little Rock, AR, where we spent 10 years toiling before retirement, we discovered the Van Lang Vietnamese Cuisine Restaurant, on South University Avenue, across from the gates to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. During our last 3 or so years in that capital city, we probably ate at Van Lang on the average of once a week. Often it was our first stop after landing at the LR Airport, even before driving to our apartment, 10 minutes away.
The two things we miss most about LR (it's hard to think of many others) are Van Lang's and the Public Library System.
For some time I've wanted to make Pho, a classic Vietnamese soup of beef or chicken plus rice noodles, accompanied by a platter of fresh herbs to add al gusto. There are numerous elaborations on the theme, but the basic soup consists of a beef stock made from scratch, spiced with ginger, cloves and star anise, perhaps some lemongrass, and various sliced cuts of beef.
This lit my fire to do it at last: some inspiring photos of Asian noodle soups, including Pho, by "hwinnp", on one of my favorite forums, Any Port In a Storm.
The chicken version, Pho Gai, may be less demanding to make, but for me, the beef version is more attractive. Being undemanding of "authenticity", I was able to make a very satisfactory pho.
Certain ingredients may be hard to find. But looking for them is a big part of the fun. You may use the absence of star anise in the Pátzcuaro Mercado as an excuse to go to Mexico City for a couple of days.
Fresh ginger root, another vital flavoring, is not a problem. It's frequently available at the stand of Los Padilla in the Pátzcuaro mercado. I got a very nice, 6 inch branch for 7 pesos.
Lemongrass? just ask for té de limón at the herb stands, although if you want it green and fresh, you'll have to look around.
For the beef, I went to La Carnicería La Norteña in the mercado and asked for a kilo of beef suitable for Caldo de Res, plus an equal weight of huesos para el caldo. The latter are free. More bones would have been better. Note: I wash the meat and bones in cold running water for a few moments before beginning to cook them. Nevertheless, some of the meat gave off a pissy odor during the first cooking, but it totaly dissipated during the second cooking. I think that this will probably not occur again. I may go instead to a different carnicería next time.
Fish sauce, I think, may be obtainable at better supermarkets in Morelia, such as Superama.
Below is the recipe downloaded from the NY Times Online, that served as my base from which I improvised. I'll insert my comments and changes like this.
For the broth:
5 pounds beef marrow or knuckle bones
2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2 pieces
2 3-inch pieces ginger, halved lengthwise and lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife
2 yellow onions, peeled
1/2 cup fish sauce, plus more to taste (It used up all the fish sauce on hand.)
3 ounces rock sugar or 3 tablespoons sugar (I used 3 small buttons of piloncillo, and a little more white sugar to adjust the seasoning.)
10 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
6 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
1 tablespoon sea salt (More was needed. Taste before adding, of course.)
For the soup:
1 pound dried rice sticks, 1/16 inch wide (I had tubular tapioca noodles and flat rice noodles. I used the tapioca ones. Now I think the flat ones would have been a little better.)
1/3 pound beef sirloin, slightly frozen, then sliced paper thin across the grain (Tender sirloin is almost impossible to get, so I skipped this elaboration.)
For the garnish:
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced (I left this off, figuring the scallions were enough. Do as you wish. Also, yellow onions are seldom available, so, white are fine. If you really want to do it up, get shallots and fry them crisp.)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 pound bean sprouts (There is one stand on Calle Libertad, in the lower part of the mercado, which always has these. Sometimes Los Padlla have it also. It is expensive. I paid $20 MXN for a cuarto kilo.)
10 sprigs Thai basil (Thai, schmai. Use albahaca from the mercado, or grow your own.)
1 dozen saw-leaf herb leaves (optional) (Unobtainable, as far as I know. It is known also as culantro in other Latin American countries.)
6 Thai bird chilies or 1 Serrano chili, very thinly sliced (Use at your own risk. No problem in finding appropriate smal, hot chiles.)
1 lime, cut into 6 wedges (More limes, ¡por favor!)
Freshly ground black pepper.
1. Prepare the broth: In a large stockpot, bring 6 quarts water to a boil. Place the bones and beef in a second large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Char the ginger by holding each piece with tongs directly over the stove burner on high heat. Char until lightly blackened and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Char the onions in the same way. Peel and discard the blackened skins of the ginger and onions, then rinse and set aside.
2. Vigorously boil the meat for 5 minutes, then transfer the bones and beef to the other pot of boiling water. Discard the water in which the meat first cooked. (This cleans the bones and meat and reduces the impurities that can cloud the broth.) When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the ginger, onions, fish sauce and sugar.
(I augmented our scanty supply of fish sauce by soaking ground dried shrimp and sea salt in hot water, then straining the soaked infusion into the pot. It was strong, but it worked to enhance the complex flavor.)
Simmer until the beef is tender, about 40 minutes; occasionally skim the surface of any foam and fat.
3. Remove one piece of beef and submerge in cool water for 10 minutes (to prevent the meat from darkening and drying out).* Drain, then cut into thin slices and set aside. Simmer the broth for another 50 minutes, then place the star anise and cloves in a spice bag, add to the broth and simmer for 30 minutes more. Remove and discard the spice bag and onions. Add the salt, and continue to simmer, skimming from time to time.
* (I didn't really understand this. Why only one piece of beef. I waited until the soup and beef were done, and cooled to room temp, then sliced it. I also skipped the spice bag, and it all worked out fine.)
4. Prepare the soup: Soak the noodles in cold water for 30 minutes. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and, working in batches, dip the noodles into the boiling water for 10 to 20 seconds, stirring to keep them from tangling. Drain.
5. To serve, season the broth to taste with fish sauce, then bring to a rolling boil. Place about 2 cups of cooked noodles in each of six large preheated bowls. (If the noodles are not hot, dip them briefly in the simmering broth.) Place a few slices of the cooked and raw beef on the noodles, then ladle 2 to 3 cups broth into each bowl. The broth will cook the raw beef instantly.
6. At the table, garnish with onions, scallions and cilantro. Invite guests to top the soup with bean sprouts, herbs, chilies, lime juice and black pepper. Serves 6. Adapted from "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" by Pham Mai.
Below, the results of this work: A Mighty Pho, and very satisfying one.