Have you ever had pho? If not, then you probably just pronounced that wrong in your head. Pho is a traditional Vietnamese beef and noodle soup, and it is pronounced like the first two letters of the word fun.
This allows many restaurants to have hilarious puns as names, like pho bulous or pho nomenal. LOL. When you are done laughing yourself silly we can put the jokes aside and talk about the food.
The soup is traditionally a beef broth base with onions, ginger, cardamom, coriander, and Saigon (Vietnamese) cinnamon, among other possible spices, combined with rice noodles and just about any cut of beef you can imagine. Typically it will come with garnishes such as lime, mint, or basil leaves.
Hailing from Hanoi, Vietnam, the soup can be found just about anywhere in Vietnam, and is a staple of daily life. Here in the U.S. it can be a little harder to find in areas without large Vietnamese populations, but we here in Oklahoma City happen to be quite lucky. Oklahoma City’s Asian District, branching from the area of 23rd and Classen, hosts a panoply of pho restaurants, enough that I could eat at a different one every day for two weeks or so, not to mention a scattering of them on the outlying edges of Oklahoma City, with more popping up every week it seems.
I have made a valiant attempt to try as many of those places as I can, not only because I just can’t get enough of that sweet, savory broth, but also because people might think you are crazy if you tell them you eat at the same soup kitchen everyday. I am often tempted to do just that though, because good pho is great to warm you up on a cold day, but is light enough to leave you feeling refreshed before stepping back out into the summer sun.
I have been the length and breadth of the city trying new spots, but I don’t really know why. I once asked a Vietnamese friend of mine, while driving one day, where the best Vietnamese food in town could be found. First he stared at me like it was shocking that I could want his food, but he found his composure, turned the truck around, and drove half way across town to take me to a little place on 23rd street, just East of Classen, Pho Lien Hoa.
Pho Lien Hoa has been operating in the same location for many years, first under the name Pho Hoa and later with the current name after the establishment was purchased by Vietnam native Lien Le. They do it right, and as far as I can tell my Vietnamese friend was right, because I haven’t found anywhere better.
Pho Lien Hoa’s food is great, but they also have many dishes and choices on their menu you won’t find at many other pho restaurants. Just in traditional beef pho there are nineteen options to choose from, all the same soup, just with different cuts of the cow. If you feel confused, there is a large butcher’s map by the front register to help decipher what you are getting.
If you want to stay in a safe zone you can go with flank, brisket, or rare steak. If you really feel like thinking outside the box you can find just about any part of the cow to order; from tripe, cow’s stomach lining, to beef tendon meat. So far it has all been delicious, but I know some of you can be a little squeamish. Cowards.
But what makes Lein Hoa stand out is that they do more than just beef noodle soup. They have a pork broth based soup called Hu Tieu that can be ordered with pork, shrimp, or chicken, and clear rice noodles. Similar to the Hu Tieu is the Mi, made with egg noodles, or the Banh Canh, made with udon style noodles. All of their soups come with a garnish plate that includes bean sprouts, mint, lime wedges, jalapenos, and saw leaf, whose flavor is very similar to cilantro.
Hu Tieu and Pho have a different history, with Pho coming from North Vietnam and having a decidedly more Chinese influence, the Hu Tieu hails from Phnom Penh and has Cambodian and Khmer roots. For a full travel log of the Southeast Asian coast, you should also try the Bun, vermicelli noodle dishes served as plates or soups, hailing from central Vietnam.
I can’t place my finger on it, but there must be something in the water at Pho Lien Hoa because the soup comes out great every time. Don’t just stop at the food though. I know the menu can be distracting with so many good options, but you should give the drinks a chance as well. They offer many flavors of smoothies, with or without boba, as well as old-fashioned egg cream sodas, and my favorite Cafe Sua Da. Cafe Sua Da is Vietnamese style iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk (I may have mentioned this drink in previous posts), but in this case it is done in a fun, flavorful, and always memorable way. Two cups are brought to you; one tall and chilled, filled with ice, and containing a stirring spoon; the second a small coffee cup with the milk at the bottom and a miniature french press on top of the cup. The french press drips down onto the condensed milk causing it to become thin and pourable, where you can then pour the mixture over the ice and stir for a delicious, icy concoction.
Lastly, I must warn you about the amount of food. This is a general rule for all pho places. The portions are huge. Picture a medium size mixing bowl in your kitchen. That is a small order of soup. A large order comes in a bowl larger than most of you have in your homes, and is enough to feed a whole family. So don’t worry about getting enough to eat, and order the small before your hunger betrays your sense of reason. Enjoy.
<Hey, there should be pictures here…>