The District’s latest pho parlor is not really one at all. It’s Wagshal’s Delicatessen on Massachusetts Avenue NW, where executive chef Ann-Marie James has devised an ingenious take-out version of the Vietnamese noodle soup. Actually, it’s less a take-out version, which implies that Wagshal’s pho is ready to eat, than it is the adult version of Lunchables.
The sectioned container includes a bowl of homemade beef broth, parboiled rice noodles, raw slices of prime eye of round, sprouts, jalapeno slices, raw red and Spanish onion rings, a small container of Sriracha and hoisin sauce, a wedge of lime, and leaves of cilantro, mint, and Thai basil. Once you get the package home, you remove the small bowl of broth and microwave it for a few minutes. While it’s nuking, you arrange your preferred ingredients at the bottom of the larger section of the plastic container and then dump the hot broth over them.
James, a former accountant turned chef, had been wanting to add pho to the deli menu for months now, but it required the right packaging and the right flavors before she could get the green light from Wagshal’s owner William Fuchs Jr. It’s been available for about four weeks now, James says.
To build her pho broth, James leans on the superior ingredients available at Wagshal’s Market, which sells prime, dry-aged beef. She uses about three pounds of brisket as well as six pounds of marrow, neck, and oxtail bones to prepare her broth. To that mixture, she adds ginger, onions, star anise, sugar, hoisin sauce, cinnamon sticks, fish sauce, and rice vinegar.
The resulting stock, I tell James, is decidedly sweeter than the liquids I’m accustomed to at my preferred pho parlors. Customers, she responds, should balance out the sweetness by applying appropriate amounts of Sriracha and lime juice, which should then give them the four flavors characteristic to Vietnamese cooking: sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter.
If my broth never achieved that balance — at least on this trial run, which leaned toward the sweet side even with enhancements — I chalked it up to my particular palate and the flavors I prefer in my pho. I like my pho to channel rich beef flavor, with small nuanced hints of, say, star anise or cardamom or ginger. I don’t want sweet beef.
Still, I have to say, even with the frontal assault of sugar and cinnamon, the beef flavor comes through well enough in James’ pho. It’s assisted, of course, by the raw slices of prime eye of round, which may be the single best beef I’ve ever had in a bowl of pho. As the slices slowly cooked in the hot broth, they released more flavor into the liquid, while providing an rich, chewy element on their own.
If I had to gripe about one other element, it would be the rice noodles, which I found too thick and too al dente to offer that slick, slurpy experience that I love about pho. These were chewy noodles. There were also too few noodles to pair with the generous amount of broth provided in this bargain-priced package of pho. I’d happily pay a buck more than the $5.99 sticker price for an extra handful of noodles, especially if they were a little softer and a little thinner.
But I really like the concept of a Lunchables-style pho, and I enjoyed the process of putting it all together. What I found frustrating was that I couldn’t manipulate the flavors to my satisfaction, like I can at my favorite parlors.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery