Broth of Fresh Air: Wagshal?s approximation of the classic Vietnamese soup.
Broth of Fresh Air: Wagshal?s approximation of the classic Vietnamese soup. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

My pho and I are engaged in a battle of wits, and the soup is winning.

I’m sitting at the counter at Saigon Bistro near Dupont Circle and, per my usual routine, I’m dipping my stubby little soup spoon into the broth to test it. This is at least the fourth time I’ve slurped pho at Saigon, and, I have to say, no two bowls here have ever tasted the same. I had one that barely tripped my taste buds and another that was so thick with big fatty bubbles you would have thought the chef had melted a stick of butter into the broth.

But none of my previous bowls could have prepared me for my current one. What I’m experiencing right now is, well, pain. My tongue is seriously irritated, and it’s not the irritation of, say, a pepper or an acid because no obvious flavor accompanies the sensation, save perhaps the slightest hint of beef underneath what feels like a raw chemical burn.

I mount a number of frontal assaults on my soup. First I add hoisin, which just gives the irritation a sweet edge. Then I improvise and dribble in some of the nuoc mam sauce that accompanied my shrimp toast, which only intensifies the sweetness without reducing the burn. Finally, in an admitted act of madness, I squirt a few flaming-red lines of Sriracha into the broth, which qualifies my bowl, I decide upon tasting, as a Superfund site. Ultimately, I surrender to my radioactive bowl, which lies there, barely half-empty.

When it comes to pho in the District proper, I’m definitely a bowl-half-empty kind of guy. A year ago at this time, I wouldn’t even have bothered with this topic. But recently a few places have started teasing Washingtonians with the promise of good Vietnamese noodle soup within the city’s borders, eliminating the need to shlep out to Falls Church or Wheaton or some other rung on the District’s outer orbit, where the best pho parlors languish.

Saigon Bistro, you could argue, isn’t even the biggest tease among them. That honor goes to Pho 14 in Columbia Heights, which the Prince of Petworth started blogging about in January. His first post, featuring a photo of the then unopened restaurant and two virtually content-free paragraphs, drew a whopping 62 responses. Readers immediately ratcheted up their expectations with comments such as: “Hubba hubba! Can’t wait! I’m speechless…,” and “OMG,” which the commenter repeated 30 times.

No pho parlor could live up to those expectations, let alone one based in the District. There’s a reason, after all, our city hasn’t been awash in noodle shops, and it boils down (if you’ll pardon the pun) to economics. D.C.’s pricey retail locations make it almost impossible for restaurateurs to focus exclusively on Vietnamese noodle soups, like they do at Pho 50 in Falls Church or the small Pho 75 chain. Customers will shell out only so much for a bowl of broth with beef and veggies, no matter how good it is.

“It is harder, because the rent is higher [in D.C.] compared to any other area,” says Michael Tran, manager at Saigon Bistro, which is the first restaurant opened by Luna Howard, a hair salon owner in Dupont. “If you do pho only and nothing else, it’s kind of hard to survive.”

Which helps explain why both Saigon Bistro and Pho 14 offer more than soup. Of the two, Saigon Bistro has the more extensive menu, a rather substantial survey of Vietnamese cuisine from spring rolls to vermicelli dishes to clay pots. Pho 14’s offerings, by contrast, are more limited even though, aside from the soup, it peddles rolls, vermicelli bowls, and a small line of banh mi sandwiches. All of which sounds great, of course, until you realize how painstaking it is just to produce a fragrant bowl of pho.

“If you do too many things at one time, you lose” the ability to focus on pho, admits Gene Nguyen, owner of Pho Hot shops in Annandale and Centreville. Nguyen has been scouting spaces in D.C. to open a pho parlor himself, but like his contemporaries, he’s seen how the economics conspire against a traditional Vietnamese noodle-soup shop. His solution is to try to transform the standard, no-frills pho house into something more gourmet—a place where customers would willingly shell out more than $10 a visit.

In some ways, the suburban strip-mall pho parlors have done a disservice to the very product they sell. Their focus on soup over service (and the other niceties of the dining experience) have allowed them to sell pho at cut-rate prices. They have, in other words, set a de facto ceiling on the price of pho, no matter where that bowl is sold.

It’s a shame. Counter to its simple image, pho is both labor and time-intensive to produce. The kitchen needs to order fresh, not frozen, beef bones with plenty of marrow in them. The cooks must simmer those bones for at least six hours with a blend of spices, which vary depending on the flavors they want to emphasize, maybe the licorice sweetness of star anise or the warm sweetness of cloves. They must add and monitor the various cuts of meat to guarantee that none of them get overcooked. And perhaps most important, they must let the broth cool, so that a layer of fat forms on the surface. Once they reheat the pot, that fat then dissolves into the liquid, providing the body and big beefy wallop that defines the best pho.

There are shortcuts, naturally, that a pho house can take. It can skip the bones and use meat only to produce the broth, which significantly reduces the cooking time. Or it can bulk up the flavor of a thin broth by adding an insane amount of MSG. Now, I’m not suggesting that D.C.’s pho parlors do this, but I will say this: I’ve not had a great bowl of pho at either Saigon Bistro or Pho 14. The latter’s soups occupy a sort of frustrating middle ground, neither poor enough to dismiss nor superior enough to endorse. Much of the time I feel like I have to will flavor into existence at Pho 14.

I had no such problem with the take-away soup at Wagshal’s Delicatessen on Massachusetts Avenue NW, the most recent (and most unlikely) pho pusher in the District. The kitchen uses marrow, neck, and oxtail bones provided by Wagshal’s Market, arguably the best butcher shop in town, which results in a broth fragrant with beef and spice…and way too much sugar and cinnamon. It’s pho as conceived by non-Vietnamese mostly for non-Vietnamese eaters, a nice mainstream gesture to Southeast Asian cooking but ultimately a wild stab at authenticity.

The best pho in the District continues to be the one at Nam-Viet on Connecticut Avenue, where the tiny tell-tale bubbles of fat fill your mouth with rich beef flavor. It’s broth so good you don’t need to punch it up with garnishes, which is a good thing. Because my most recent bowl at Nam-Viet didn’t include Thai basil, jalapeno rounds, or culantro. Which is a whole ’nother frustration.

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