Some people snort coke. Some run. I eat pho.
My obsession started almost exactly 20 years ago, when I was introduced to this most profound soup. It was innocuous enough: A woman I’d started dating invited me to her favorite restaurant for dinner. Initially, I was off-put by the simplicity of it. It’s just soup I asserted.
“It’s addictive–I love it–you should give it a try.” she replied.
I reluctantly agree. We roll up to Than Brothers Aurora (the origin of the local chain). It’s a hole-in-the-wall, easily missed along a busy thoroughfare. We walk in, and the aromas envelop me like a perfumed sauna. I’ve never been to a place like this and am not sure if I’ll like it. I have no idea what most of the menu’s items are.
Only one dish is served here: Pho, a light Vietnamese soup typically made with slow-cooked beef and its broth, thin rice noodles, served with additional fresh herbs and vegetables. Ingredients for the broth as well as additions to the soup can vary. It’s not like any of the European beef soups of my youth. It has almost none of those ingredients. After debating the merits of the 22 permutations–like tripe and soft tendon–I arrive at a Medium #1 (Pho Bo Tai) with extra noodles, as my choice.
Whatever that is.
Within what seemed like seconds, giant steaming bowls arrive, balanced precipitously on each other by the very skilled owner, a former colonel in the Vietnamese army.
It’s a submerged mountain of noodles–much like Hawaii–in a sea of rich, complex beef broth, surrounded by an archipelago of cilantro, scallion, and onion–topped by tender, rare, impossibly thin slices of top sirloin steak. I add a generous dollop of house-made sambal, a sauce made of oil and chilis, until a delicious crimson slick forms. What was once an arrangement of gorgeous raw slices of beef is now delicately cooked, blended seamlessly with the addition of torn Thai basil and lime, supplied as an accoutrement. I find that’s standard at pho joints. Additional sides of bean sprouts and jalapeno slices are added by my date. Not me. I am supremely satisfied with my concoction. The ratio of meat to noodles is perfect. The broth is fiery. And, it’s now finally cool enough to eat.
I slurp a mouthful of noodles, beef, onions, and cilantro. Then a spoonful of the liquid crack. Sambal’s chilis kick in, and my nose starts to sweat. The combination of flavors and textures is surprising. Not bad at all, actually. In fact, it’s pretty damn good. And it’s cheap.
In the days afterward, I catch myself thinking about that soup again. And again.
A month later, I’m back. And, I’ve been back ever since. I thought they closed due to a remodel last year. I was devastated until finding they merely re-opened in a larger space a few feet north. Whew. I wouldn’t know what to do without my beloved pho from Than Brothers–my ‘hookup’.
In 20 years of sucking down bowls of the superlative elixir, I rarely deviate from the Medium #1, and I don’t frequent other pho joints. But it’s more serious than that: I’ve been to this place more than all other dining experiences I’ve ever had–combined. And I enjoy eating out.
But it’s not really eating out. It’s getting my fix. It’s spicy. It’s crunchy. It’s brothy. It burns. And I can’t stop. Like staring down that last chocolate in the box. It’s gonna happen.
Pho. It’s my kind of drug.