Bún bò hue tai – a noodle soup popular in and around the Vietnamese city of Hue – commonly involves ingredients such as pork knuckle, congealed pig blood and julienned banana blossoms. At Pho #1 in Salinas, however, owner Halie Truong and Chef Thao Truong decided against the finicky blossoms which spoil quickly, replacing them with slivers of purple cabbage. And they omit the knuckle and tofu-like blood altogether.
But in the restaurant world, practicality often wins out over tradition. “Here we try to make it so everyone can enjoy it easily,” Halie Truong explains.
While Truong and her brother (Thao serves as chef) sacrifice some tradition for the sake of acclimating American palates, they have not forsaken the profound and satisfying character of the broth. It’s as if the sturdy essence of beef seeped into the ruddy liquid, giving it richness without the heft of red meat. At the same time, a twang of lemongrass welcomes herbs – mint, basil, cilantro – that you toss into the bowl, developing into a grassy sheen. Meanwhile, a reserved but noticeable heat glowers from the wings.
Bún translates as noodles – vermicelli, in this case – and bò as beef. And this is likely beefier than you would find in Hue, where pork provides much of the oomph. Here, slices of brisket are thin and tender. Hunks of oxtail offer shards of husky meat laced with creamy gelatin. Even the pork takes on some of the ruggedness. The chef brings all this together stewing bones and beef tendon then bulking up the broth with annatto and shrimp paste. For a dry noodle bowl – bún thit nuong cha giò – bits of pork are grilled down so only a dense, cured fruit savor remains, flavoring an otherwise bright and naturally sweet combination of herbs and vegetables. The nuoc cham for the noodles is sharp, with an earthy tone, but also thin and pale. And they skimp on the egg roll, though there are other ways to dress the dish.
“You can add an egg to it,” Truong says. “I like it that way.”
The restaurant is called Pho #1, and there are 14 versions of the popular broth on the menu, some more compatible than others (imitation crab does not do the phó hai san any favors, for instance; on the other hand, there’s a welcome funk drifting through the phó dac biet, thanks to a helping of tripe). Bún, however, is growing in stature as more Americans become aware of its deep flavors.
There are many other options, although lengthy menus can be troubling. It’s difficult for a kitchen to perfect everything on a long list. But whole chicken wings give a satisfying crackle. Shrimp cakes wrapped in bean curd are mellow and nutty (“one of my favorites,” Truong says). And there’s their salty lemonade. In combination, the salt calms lemon’s piercing shriek. The lemon dulls salt’s bite and a candied character emerges.
“My mom makes that,” Truong says. “We have a lemon tree. It’s very easy.” The process involves lemons, salt, water and – after two weeks mulling in a jar – sugar.
Phó may not be the most memorable thing at Pho #1. And that’s just fine.
PHO #1 1818 N. Main St. (Hardin Ranch Plaza), Salinas. Mon-Tue and Thu-Sat 11am-9pm; Sun 11am-8:30pm; closed Wed. 998-8887.