Ask a CU Boulder student and it’s likely he’ll say that pho is more than a food — it’s a remedy. But I’ll get to that.
Pho is a well-known and well-loved Vietnamese dish, a giant bowl of piping-hot liquid heaven. It’s deceptively simple – a light, briny beef broth with flat rice noodles and slices of steak, served with an array of toppings and condiments you can add as you wish. There are few culinary joys like hanging your head over a giant bowl of pho and taking a deep inhale – it’s like a sauna full of gingerbread men. It truly has rejuvenating qualities, it does wonders for your sinuses, and it’s a blessing when you have a cold.
Don’t worry about nailing the pronunciation – many mistakenly say it like “foe” but it’s more accurate to say “fuh.” To be technical, there is extra emphasis on the end, like “fuhAH.” But even if you can’t grasp the cadence of spoken Vietnamese, everyone will know what you mean. Many who sell it around here will kindly pronounce it “foe” so you don’t feel weird about it!
Though the exact details of its birth are the subject of scholarly debate, pho is widely accepted as a product of northern Vietnam via Hanoi. Many Vietnamese dishes are an interesting clash of Asian and French cuisine (the banh mi – a pork sandwich on a French roll – is the perfect example), but pho has very native roots. It began as street fare, and mobile vendors traditionally carted it around with carrying poles.
It wasn’t until the Partition of Vietnam during the 1950s when pho traveled to South Vietnam with those who fled the North. That’s where the pho we know as Americans came into being, with a taste for sweeter broth, the use of Hoisin sauce, and the variety of add-ins like cilantro, lime, Thai basil, and bean sprouts.
Pho is all about the broth: beef bones, charred ginger and onion, rock sugar, a dash of fish sauce, and a blend of herbs that can smell to Westerners a bit like Christmas because of the heavy notes of cinnamon, cloves, and anise. For the restaurants that do it right, the soup must simmer all day. Some restaurants will simmer for two hours, some for twelve hours – you can definitely taste which is which!
Each Boulder pho is a bit different. All of them offer the standard assortment of toppings and condiments (some fresher than others), and also provide options for a variety of proteins including chicken, meatballs or tofu. It’s common to also find options for tripe (stomach) and beef tendons, but don’t feel obligated to try them, as many Vietnamese don’t like these options either.
So where can you get it in Boulder?
The Vietnamese community in Boulder is very small, but there’s an abundance of pho in town.
2655 28th St Boulder, CO 80301
Chez Thuy is perhaps the most well-known, often recognized by the Boulder Weekly’s “Best of Boulder” and a very popular local destination. It can get very busy, and complaints about the apathetic service are only exacerbated during their hectic lunch and dinner rushes. Priced around $9 for a “medium” bowl, their pho definitely does the trick, but it’s hardly the best thing on the menu.
Viña Pho & Grill
1630 30th St
Viña Pho & Grill is a great place you should go if you aren’t too rushed. The sizes aren’t as gargantuan as other restaurants but it’s big enough to fill most stomachs, and many locals swear by their method. Priced at a little over $7 for a small bowl, Viña is definitely worth a taste.
2770 Pearl St
With more of a modern approach to Vietnamese cuisine, you can expect a clean dining experience and great service at Black Pepper Pho. The pho itself doesn’t stand out far beyond the other bowls and grill options, but it should be noted they take good care of gluten-free customers. Purists may not approve, but especially if you pair it with one of their delicious Boba tea options, it’s tasty enough to get a non-believer started.
2500 Baseline Rd.
May Wah is tucked away in a big Baseline shopping center and has a reputation for solid Chinese fare. It’s easy to get lost in their giant menu, but their $8 pho is competitive with Chez Thuy and offers just about every protein combination you could ask for. They may not be pho specialists but they certainly have a few loyal customers.
Kim’s Food To Go
1325 Broadway St
One of the best-kept secrets in town is the pho from Kim’s Food To Go. Often overlooked in reviews because of the storefront’s “shack” aesthetic and the lack of indoor dining, its appearance easily belies the quality of the food. It’s by far the best Asian option on the Hill. And not only is it one of the only places in town you can find real Hanoi pho, but it’s definitely the best bang for your buck – at a flat $7 for a giant bowl, it’s very tough to beat!
3280 28th St.
A newcomer to the block, Pho Basil has picked up a lot of steam with daring Chinese dishes and a prominent 28th Street location, but has not made much of its namesake. There is plenty of delicious food here but the pho is not quite worth the $8 (and it doesn’t help they are known to add your veggies for you).
You & Mee Noodle House
1311 Broadway St.
This seems to be a good place for college students on a budget without a real appreciation for a bold bowl of pho. The condiment bar allows you to customize your bowl to whatever extent you wish, but you’re going to need it to cover up the bland, canned broth. However, if you’ve only got $6 in your pocket, it may just be enough to satisfy cravings.
So, which is your favorite for Pho? Did I miss a place? Let us know in the comments.