Pho Saigon in Catonsville, MD
It was, at one point in the day, 100 degrees outside in Baltimore. I packed a couple bags of popcorn as late night snacks for my hotel room, and during the drive in I could have sworn I heard them popping in the back. I sweat more than a pregnant nun at confession.
So why the hell am I having pho for dinner today?!
Pho is more than just soup. It’s comfort and nurturing for an Asian boy in very non-Asian lands. It’s really very easy to explain. Some people have their chicken noodle soups, I have my pho.
Soups are big in Asia. They’re big in my family. I love my wonton noodle soup from HK Wonton Garden in Chinatown. I love soondobu from BCD Tofu House in Fort Lee. Ramen from Mitsuwa in Edgewater. Don’t judge, but I love my instant ramens too. Dosirac. Bowl Noodle. Gomtang. But none hold as much significance as pho.
First time I had pho was actually with Beautiful in Philly. She took me to this place her family always went to and ever since I have strongly advocated that Pho Ha in Philly serves the best pho in the country. No trip to Philly is complete without stopping there, regardless of the season or the temperature.
It’s about more than just the taste or the ingredients. It’s about the practice of eating pho. It is like zen meditation with a hint of ginger and star anise.
It’s all about the timing and the preparation. You have to understand that to eat pho you have to be part of the process of making it. There is a mandatory aspect of audience participation and it follows a logical and satisfying process that promises incredible rewards.
Behind the scenes, the chef is perfecting the broth. Without good pho broth you have beef in water. Good pho broth is an investment of time and attention. The master broth is simmered for at least 6 hours and it is where all the flavor and power is derived. You trust your chef to provide you with good broth as he trusts you to finish the product.
You can choose whatever you want to have in your pho. Traditionalists will only want those rich, meaty, thin slices of super flavorful brisket, delicately placed on top of your piping hot broth, cooking in the residual heat to a tender medium rare. Ever the iconoclast, I always order mine packed to the brim with flank, tendon, tripe, and beef balls.
As your bowl of pho is being prepared in the back, your waitress brings your accouretrements. A generously piled plate of raw bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeno slices, and lime. Meanwhile you take a small plate and place equal amounts of hoisin sauce and hot sauce on the side. With everything prepped and laid before you, you are ready to receive your bowl of pho with all your meat and those deliciously slippery rice noodles. It is now your turn to take over. The timer is ticking as your soup gradually goes from blisteringly hot to a perfect soul and stomach satisfying warmth.
Before anything else, you must lean in, smell the broth. Like a fine wine, search for those taste notes that will inform you of the journey you are about to take. Smell the pure beef richness. The freshness of the ginger. The complicated candy-spice of the star anise. The earthy pungency and funk of salty fish sauce. The smell of a well-seasoned and powerful broth is unmistakable.
Now, as your soup is still at that too-hot-to-handle stage, customize your pho. Add handfuls of the bean sprouts and watch as they slowly poach in the broth. Punctuate the richness of the beef with the sweet aroma of Thai basil as you tear the leaves and scatter them in the bowl. Add freshness and zest with the lime. Some jalapeno wouldn’t hurt either if you are able to handle it.
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. This is why you were prepared from the very beginning and had all your ingredients in front of you. It is exactly at the moment you finish adding your ingredients that the broth is ready to taste. Take that first pure sip of broth and let the warmth and flavor transport you.
Now you begin your ritual. Enjoying pho is very active and requires attention and due diligence. You alternate between rich, filling sips of that incredibly unctious broth, enjoying tender rare pieces of beef, and slurping those slightly chewy, satisfyingly slippery, luxuriously lengthy, rice noodles. Forget the temperature outside. Forget the sweat that gathers at you brow and threatens to freefall off your face. Forget everything and engage in your meal and actively be a participant in its enjoyment. Broth, sip. Beef, dip in that combination of hoisin and Sriracha. Noodles, slurp. Repeat. Enjoy. Zen. Be.
Before you know it, you’re at the bottom of your bowl. You don’t want to believe it. Your spoon presses against the deepest part, hoping to gather from the depths enough for one more fulfilling sip. Chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other. When your hands are full you can’t hold onto a cell phone. When your mind is engaged you can’t hold on to regrets and fears. There’s no time to steal away. Your pho is getting cold, and you cannot miss the golden time in between. You can’t really recall the last time a meal demanded so much of your attention and returned so much satisfaction.
You can’t mess up good pho. If the broth is good and the meat is fresh and the noodles are al dente and the vegetables are crisp, life is good. Even sub-par pho is still in its essence incredible for the stomach and the soul.
Pho Saigon is good pho. Pho Saigon is honest pho. Pho Saigon is an opportunity in Catonsville, MD to experience Zen. The portions are generous, the meat is toothsome yet tender and flavorful without being too fatty.
And if a satisfied soul isn’t as important as a satisfied stomach to you, forget everything I said because they also have the Man vs Pho challenge which is quite literally two pounds of beef, two pounds of noodles, and like a gallon of broth.