That is a question food bloggers can debate endlessly. In Houston, right now, the debate centers on 3 contenders:
The debate is complicated by the fact that Pho Danh has 3 locations, and Pho Binh has at least 7.
Pho Binh 3
Yesterday, I finally made it to Pho Binh's Mangum location. Apparently, it was the 3rd Pho Binh opened, but it is also the headquarters. So I thought it was a good location to sample.
The restaurant is a collection of smart business ideas:
1 - focus on only two Vietnamese dishes that every likes: Pho and grilled meats;
2 - open only for lunch;
3 - give a choice of exactly what meats to include (so the less adventurous can avoid tripe and tendon); and
4 - make the pho cheap ($6.45 for a generous "regular" bowl; $7.50 for a large).
It works. The dining room was packed by noon. And the crowd was diverse -- although about 80% were guys. (There is something manly about noodles).
I tried a traditional version with rare steak, brisket, tendon and tripe:
The ultimate test of pho is the broth. This broth is much better than the average pho because of its spices. Pho almost always includes star anise and cinnamon. You might also find cloves, cardamom, or ginger.
This pho smelled and tasted like a spice market. It may be the most concentratedly spiced pho in town. I suspect this is why some bloggers think it is the best.
I sllightly prefer for Pho Danh for a few reasons. First, its broth tasted more complex, like it was cooked longer, even if the spice wasn't as strong. Second, Pho Danh provided a wider selection of accompaniments, including a variety of herbs. At Pho Binh, you only get one herb, plus japalenos, sprouts, and lime.
Still, these are minor quibbles. Pho Binh, Pho Danh and Thien An all make pho that is far, far better than your average soup with noodles, including all the swill that is often passed off as pho.
All 3 contenders demonstrate why pho is one of the world's great soups.
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