Does the overcast, cool climate drive people to eat large bowls of soup? According to Kevin Vu, co-owner of Pho Green Papaya, the restaurant is busy on overcast days but empty on sunny days.
Maybe we should start reporting the weather based on the probability that you will crave pho on that day: Overcast skies, 85 percent chance of pho for lunch.
My final question was more vexing: How do you choose where to eat pho in a city that has so many pho restaurants?
Ashley Swanson, features news coordinator at The Columbian, helped me by compiling a list of all the pho restaurants in Clark County. These restaurants were all in Vancouver, except for one in Salmon Creek (Ei8ht Noodles), so I decided to call our map the Van Pho Map.
I ate at every pho restaurant on the list to find out where I could get the best pho in Clark County.
Pho restaurants I visited in the area
One star: Recommended; Two stars: Excellent.
If you visit any of these places, please take a photo and use #vanphomap. I will repost all my favorite photos on my Instagram.
1. Ei8ht Noodles
800 N.E. Tenney Road
2. Saigon Restaurant
3021 N.E. 72nd Drive
3. Pho Haven, one star
2014 Main St.
4. Pho Hong Phat, one star
2904 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
5. Pho Ton 1
6000 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
8700 N.E. Vancouver Mall Drive
7. Pho Saigon Restaurant
10411 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd. 106
8. Pho Ton 4
516 S.E. Chkalov Drive
9. Tan Tan Cafe and Delicatessen, one star
316 S.E. 123rd Ave.
10. Pho Green Papaya, one star
13215 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd.
11. Pho Thanh, two star
14201 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd.
12. Pho Le, one star
2100 S.E. 164th Ave.
13. Pho Vi Van, two star
16209 S.E. McGillivray Blvd.
In my research, I discovered that there is a huge difference between good pho and bad pho. I had pho broth that tasted like it had been dripped into my mouth directly from the chalice of a pho-bearing god, and I had pho broth that tasted like mop water.
There were variations in decor and service, too. Some places are clean and comfortable — while others were cramped with tables filled with dirty soup bowls. Service can be friendly and attentive or you could be treated like an unwanted bill collector. In rating a restaurant, I looked at all these things — food, atmosphere and service.
Graphic artist Marsha Matta created the Van Pho Map based on Ashley’s list, and I came up with a star system so that when you locate a particular restaurant on the map you will know its rating.
A single star to the right of a restaurant’s name means that this is a place I recommend — I think the soup is good, I like the setting, and the service is good. Two stars (assigned to only two restaurants) means that the soup is excellent and served in a friendly, comfortable setting.
If you have good pho at any of these places, please take a photo and use #vanphomap. We will repost our favorite reader pho photos online.
What is pho?
Pho (pronounced "fuh") originated in Hanoi at the beginning of the 20th century. The original pho was an aromatic beef broth with rice noodles and thin slices of beef. When the French colonial period ended in 1954 and the Geneva Accords divided the country into North and South Vietnam, about 1 million northerners migrated southward -- bringing pho from Hanoi to Saigon. In Saigon, cooks added Chinese rock sugar making a sweeter broth. They served the soup with the plate of sides and sauces (bean sprouts, Thai basil, chile sauce, hoisin sauce) found at pho restaurants in Vancouver. A soup made with chicken (pho ga) followed in 1939, possibly because beef was not sold at the markets on Mondays and Fridays at the time.
Pho broth is a complex mix of spices: star anise, Chinese black cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and pepper. These spices are layered with charred aromatics: ginger, onion, and shallot. The balance of sweetness and saltiness is accomplished by adjusting the ratio of salt, Chinese rock sugar and fish sauce. The best broths that I had were simmered for long periods of time (12-14 hours). They were clear, light, layered with flavor, and not oily.
I gave two stars to Pho Vi Van and Pho Thanh. These restaurants earned their stars by serving excellent soup in pleasant settings.
• Pho Vi Van:
I wrote a review of Pho Vi Van in one of my regular columns in the Weekend section. Pho Vi Van is special because the broth is exquisite. It is simmered for a very long time using fresh vegetables (and fruit in the case of the vegetarian broth). These soups have a light, flavorful broth made with fresh, high quality ingredients. I have tried most of the soups on the menu, and they are all delicious. My current favorite is the spicy beef soup (Bun Bo Hue – S1). This restaurant has a soothing and calming vibe (I called it a Pho Spa). A restaurant with exceptional soup in a calm setting is my idea of superb meal.
As my friend and partner at Foodcouver, Monika Spykerman, and I were Zen-ing out, she commented, “the atmosphere here is so soothing and contemplative, with the water feature softly burbling in the background. You feel like you can really concentrate on the whole pho experience.”
• Pho Thanh:
Pho Thanh is located in a strip mall off of Mill Plain Boulevard at Northeast Olympia Boulevard. It is a small, tidy, modestly furnished restaurant owned and operated by the Siharat family. On a visit to Pho Thanh, I spoke to the son, Vince. He told me that his mother makes the stir fry and his father makes the soup. Making the soup broth is a special passion for his father, who uses the best ingredients and will not serve it until it meets his exacting standards. This requires simmering the broth for 14 hours.
I had a couple of different types of soup (Beef Pho, Wonton soup) and each broth was completely different and delicious. Creating broth this good requires skill and care in balancing spice, herb, salt, and sugar. I asked Vince what made his father’s soup special.
“Every pot of broth is made with love,” he said.
Note: Nom Nom Restaurant and Grill, 801 C St., Vancouver, opened on May 12. I wasn’t able to try their pho by my deadline for this article.