It Takes Great Bones to Make Good Pho

If you want a rich pho broth, you should just bring your pot out to the butcher shop and say, "Fill this with bones." The more bones you have, the better it tastes.

Feb 28 2015, 3:00pm

Last week, I held a pho pop-up at Reynards in Brooklyn. It was kind of an accident—we just happened to share the same book agent, but they had done something similar last year. So I said, "Yeah, let's do a pop-up. Let's party."

I couldn't have planned a better partner. Andrew Tarlow and Sean Rembold, the guys at Reynards, were breaking down whole animals there, and I prepared one of the best soups I've ever made using their bones and different cuts of meat. The quality of the animal was a huge factor. They were dry-aging some of this stuff, and I was getting very little scum on my broth. Literally, all this shit will come to the top of the broth when you cook it. But there was very little coming to the top—just fat–and I think the dry-aging might have something to do with it. It really was the Lamborghini of broths. I'm definitely going to start playing around with dry-aged bones in the future.

MAKE: Charles Phan's Beef Pho Bo

When I'm making broth, I don't usually measure anything—I just kind of do it. The trick is to use the biggest pot that you've got. You should just bring your pot out to the butcher shop and say, "Fill this with bones." And if you're not going to bring your pot to your butcher, at least try to describe the volume. In my book Vietnamese Home Cooking, I have a recipe that tells you to use eight pounds of bones—but if you've got a pot that can take another three pounds of bones, do it. The more bones you have, the better it tastes. That's why restaurant soup tastes better—it's got a bigger variety of bones, marrow, and meat.

At Reynards, it was hard. I felt like I was breaking my wrists trying to scoop about 100 pounds of bones out of this kettle when I was blanching them, which helps to draw the blood out of the bones. Then you've gotta watch this thing for six to eight hours. It's like babysitting.

Especially with beef, you need more time. But it's such a gentle heat—you don't want big bubbles, just little ones. And you keep skimming the top and cooking it for as long as you can. I don't recommend it, but at The Slanted Door we'll sometimes put a little pilot light on and let it sit overnight. But there's a chance of burning your house down doing that, so it might not be worth it for soup.

Fat is also super-important for a good pho. I always separate my fat from my soup and put back the same amount of fat in each bowl. If you take the fat out, it tastes flat and doesn't have any flavor. If you use a lot of herbs and bean sprouts, the fat helps them taste better, too.

People in the States often take the hoisin sauce and dump it in the soup. I kind of think that's sacrilege.

The broth does require a little bit of sugar, just because you're not using a traditional mirepoix. Some palm sugar or rock sugar really brings out some of the saltiness and sweetness of the broth. You also need to put a little bit of salt in at the beginning, because it makes the broth a little bit clearer.

Instead of using more bones, a lot of pho shops in the States use MSG, but that makes the broth watery. Unfortunately, it's very hard to find all the animal parts you need here. (If you can get ahold of some of the less-popular cuts—like the shank, the flap meat, or the belly—it really adds a lot more to your soup.) A lot of commercial butchers don't even cut meat anymore because labor is so expensive—they just order the parts. But what do you do when you've got a half of an animal? How do you move all this hamburger if you don't have enough customers? I'll burn through 35 filets per day for shaking beef, and I can't possibly cut 35 animals myself. But after this pop-up, I'm actually thinking about cutting my own animals. Maybe I'll start a butcher shop next to my noodle shop. The butcher and the noodle guy.

Pho was invented in the north of Vietnam, and some of the northern restaurants just serve broth with a little meat on top—nothing else in between. The broth is really the signature of each restaurant. And it's usually very simply garnished with onions and cilantro. The Vietnamese sometimes flavor other things with shallots and pork rinds, but in this case they don't. People in the States often take the hoisin sauce and dump it in the soup. I kind of think that's sacrilege. Hoisin and sriracha are really meant for dipping the meat. You shouldn't douse your soup with everything. Then again, to each his own.

Sometimes Buddhists don't even use garlic or onions, because they supposedly make you rowdy.

There's also a big Buddhist community in Vietnam that eats vegetarian soups. They're really good, and sometimes you don't even know they're vegetarian. At the restaurant, we serve a a kind of mock bún riêu. It's normally a tomato broth with pork, but the pork isn't very pronounced, so we make it vegetarian with tomato, fried shallots, and all the garnishes. We also make these these fake hams and bologna out of yuba.

A lot of vegetarian dishes in Vietnam are like that—they mimic the texture and the flavor of the original dish. They'll make a fish sauce out of pineapple juice, and if it's spicy enough, you don't even know you're not eating the real thing. For a lot of dishes, the appearance is important. They're creative at making food look and feel like some of these traditional dishes. And sometimes Buddhists don't even use garlic or onions, because they supposedly make you rowdy.

We just had Chinese New Year, and I had this vegetarian dish that uses oysters and mussels. I asked my mom, "What is this? This isn't vegetarian." And my mom says, "Well, oysters don't have blood, so you can kill them." They see it like you're killing a carrot. Poor oysters.

As told to Matthew Zuras