Near the bottom of the menu that hovers over the cash register at Toan, there’s a small-but-telling sentence. It states that the Silver Spring noodle house does not use MSG in its soups. To say I was startled would be an understatement.
“You really don’t use MSG?” I asked the young man behind the counter.
When he said no, I raised a question about standard practices at pho parlors: “Don’t most pho shops use MSG?”
“Yes,” he said, “but that’s why our soup is darker than other places’.”
“How long do you simmer the broth?” I asked.
“We simmer for almost 24 hours,” he responded. The cooks also take extra care to maintain the fat layer atop the simmering pho, he added, so that the soup doesn’t lose heat or flavor. He even mentioned that Toan offers customers the option of ordering a side of spring onions in melted fat (picture below), for those who like to bolster the flavor of their pho. Vietnamese apparently love their noodle soup with added fat.
The pho at Toan goes down like liquid foie gras. Or pate soup. Or rendered beef marrow. You get the idea: The broth is slippery rich. It’s so rich, flavorful, and full bodied, in fact, that I feel very little need to doctor the broth with Sriracha sauce and hoisin.
It’s a good thing I’m so taken with the broth. The proteins I requested — rare eye of round, fatty brisket, and soft tendon — are in short supply in my large serving of pho ($7.35; $6.45 for small). Once I popped the few slices of beef into my mouth, I was left with a dense wad of soft rice noodles.
While I wanted more beef in my pho, I still found plenty of other pleasures in that bowl. First among equals was the interplay between the silken noodles and the crunchy sprouts, a contrast of textures that, for reasons I couldn’t ascertain, was more pronounced in this pho. It was a soft crunch that I returned to again and again, as fascinated by the interplay as a baby with a shiny object.
On my way out the door, I asked the man behind the register what Toan meant. Without missing a beat, he said it was Vietnamese for “perfect.” I’m not sure about the validity of his translation, based on some quick searches I conducted, but I will say this about Toan’s pho broth: It comes pretty close to perfection.