One need only sample a steaming bowl of pho to understand why it remains a cherished tradition in its native homeland of Vietnam and why it rapidly is becoming a culinary phenomenon in America. Its delicately spiced broth, complex flavors and fresh ingredients never fail to delight the palate and satisfy the appetite. Whether you're a pho neophyte or a seasoned connoisseur, the best way to enjoy a perfect bowl is through skillful menu selection and fresh garnishes. You will find that there are many choices on a pho menu. Pho bowls can be customized based on size and combination of meats.
A cursory glance at a pho menu may be intimidating, but knowing what everything means is half the battle - and knowing what you like is the other half! Standard garnishes are supplied with every bowl: bean sprouts (giá), wedges of lime or lemon (chanh), basil (rau que), scallions (hành), cilantro (ng̣), slices of serrano or jalapeno chilies (ot), and if you're lucky, sawgrass or "saw leaf herb" (rau ng̣ gai). Generally, scallions and cilantro are pre-chopped and sprinkled on your bowl immediately before serving; the rest of the vegetables and herbs are brought to your table for individualized garnishing. Squeeze a wedge of lime and sprinkle a little black pepper into the broth before tearing herb leaves into bite-sized shreds. Add small amounts of bean sprouts and shredded herbs into your bowl as you eat. Overly large doses of garnishes will cool the soup too quickly and therefore impede optimal enjoyment.
Lovers of spiciness invariably add a generous squirt of Sriracha hot chili sauce (tuong ot) directly into their bowls to heighten the heat and add a characteristic reddish tint to the broth, but hoisin sauce (tuong an pho) is strictly optional and should be added only if the broth is not flavorful enough (in which case you should find another pho restaurant). Dollops of both chili and hoisin sauces, slightly mixed together, should remain in a small dipping bowl on the side to enhance slices of meat and other trimmings as you eat.
A comprehensive menu will offer a wide assortment of meat and trimmings. If you're new to the pleasure of pho, you may want to order the most basic meat selection: rare slices of beef steak (tái). A bowl of pho tái will please even the most finicky eaters. If you want a more traditional pho experience, include cooked slices of tender beef flank (nam) in your order: pho tái nam. The more experimental you feel, and the higher your tolerance for fatty cuts and more "exotic" fare, the further down the menu you will venture. Beef tendon (gân) and tripe, thinly sliced beef stomach lining (sách), provide chewy and crunchy texture. Not all restaurants offer beef meatballs (ḅ viên), but they can be a tasty addition to your pho if they are of high quality. Ḅ viên is nothing like the meatball found in traditional Italian cuisine. Cartilage and tendon are blended in ḅ viên to create a dense and slightly chewy meatball. Poor quality ḅ viên often has too much cartilage, rendering it rubbery and tasteless. Good ḅ viên should be both soft and chewy as well as flavorful and fresh-tasting.