If you live in the District and suddenly get a case of the Pho-king Shakes — that weak-in-the-knees condition that will be cured only with a bowl of rice noodles, fatty brisket, raw round steak, and veggies drowning in beef broth — your remedy requires a long Metro ride to some gray strip-mall outpost in the ‘burbs. It’s like the coke addict who has to brave the projects for a fix.
Fortunately, some noodles houses have now popped up in the District to satisfy our cravings for pho, including Saigon Bistro off Dupont Circle, which features not one but two chefs who recently emigrated from Vietnam. Huong T. Van handles soup duties here, and her offerings include not only pho but also hu tieu (a rice noodle soup with seafood or pork stock) and mi (an egg noodle soup with seafood or pork stock).
Her bowl of egg noodle soup with shrimp and pork is an acquired taste for one reason — it includes a last-minute sprinkling of fried-and-dried pork skin before serving, which releases its trapped oils onto the surface of the liquid. You feel like you’re eating a bowl of melted butter. I’m told this is authentic, but I can’t seem to confirm it via online recipes.
Van’s pho has been, in my experience, hit or miss. My first bowl of “Special Beef Noodle Soup,” with well-done brisket, rare beef, and tripe, emitted a wan yellowish glow and barely registered on my internal beef-o-meter. Even the usual fragrances of pho — star anise, cloves, and cardamom — were so faint that you’d need a bloodhound to sniff them out. But subsequent bowls have fared better, combining a satisfying fragrance with a big, buttery richness that made me wonder if the chef hadn’t sprinkled her dried pork on top again. (I’m told that’s a no-no.)
Regardless, every bowl of pho I’ve had at Saigon Bistro has been accompanied by a plate of garnishes that looks like last week’s leftovers at Pho 75. I’m afraid that, at this point, I still feel the need to hit the ‘burbs for my pho fix.