THE SEATTLE AREA is a Pacific Rim region tied much more to Asia than Europe, and our food trend imports tend to differ from our East Coast counterparts. We have far fewer French cuisine restaurants, for example, but loads of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai joints.
We Northwesterners frequent teriyaki establishments with the same enthusiasm Southerners have for fried chicken or barbecue pits. In fact, teriyaki is very much like Asian barbecue, complete with sweet sauce and grilled meat (yes, I know “real” barbecue is smoked, not grilled).
But for the past several years, another Asian street food has slowly caught up with teriyaki’s pinnacle of power -- the Vietnamese meal-in-a-bowl called pho (pronounced “fuh,” as in Bellevue’s aptly named “What The Pho?”). The basic dish is common all over Southeast Asia and goes by many names, but the Vietnamese soup is named after the flat noodles it contains.
In their Southeast Asian cookbook “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” (Artisan, 2000) authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid state that, “The details vary, but in all places the soup bowl is large, the broth is hot and aromatic, and there are a few pieces of meat and the occasional fragment of vegetable, lost in a tangle of noodles.”
Westerners tend to think of pho as a lunch or dinner item, so it might surprise you to know that pho bo (bo means beef) is a popular breakfast dish in Vietnam. It is also Asia’s version of chicken noodle soup, perfect for those feeling a bit under the weather and about a thousand times better than a tin of Campbell’s in both nutrition and flavor.
The broth is made from beef stock, beef soup bones or oxtails, simmered for hours. Additionally, charred onions and ginger are added to the simmering stock along with star anise, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns and fish sauce. It is very aromatic, but not at all spicy -- diners always add their own level of spiciness through condiments such as the fiery red Sriracha sauce and fresh jalapenos.
Meat options range from “rare” beef (basically thinly sliced raw beef that “cooks” in the hot broth just before serving), brisket, tendon and tripe to meatballs. The way I was taught to eat pho consists of adding a touch of hoisin and Sriracha to the broth, plus ripped basil leaves, crunchy bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime. An extra squirt of hoisin sauce goes on the condiment plate for dipping slices of meat in before chop-sticking them into one’s mouth.
I’ve seen people use their chopsticks to transfer some noodles to their spoon before slurping them up. Often times, noodles and meat are eaten first, saving the broth for the end when it’s perfectly acceptable to tip the bowl up in lieu of spooning it into your mouth.
My family have been regular diners at Totem Lake’s for years. You know how it is when you latch onto your favorite comfort food spot and never branch out? I finally decided that it was time to test the redolent waters of pho variations around Kirkland. What I discovered is that there are many great options, differing mainly in dining decor. And, there is a pho shop in nearly every part of Kirkland, including two downtown, one off of 85th, one in Totem Lake and one in Kingsgate, leaving only Juanita and Finn Hill without their own pho options.
For the sake of fairness, the following restaurants will be discussed in alphabetical order.
Like many pho restaurants, Pho Express is successful because of the cooking know-how of an immigrant “grandma” or “auntie.” Far from a dingy hole-in-the-wall food stall, Pho Express is almost elegant. Sure, you still pay at the cash register, but the warm paint colors and lack of gaudy generic Asian decor make it feel like a step up from what is essentially a fast food restaurant.
And the pho broth is that perfect mix of savory spices, hot and flavorful. The condiment plate comes with Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges and sliced jalapenos. We always get an order of shrimp salad rolls that come with a lick-able peanut dipping sauce. Kids can order a chicken broth-based version of pho that comes plain with only noodles or added strips of chicken. Be sure to add a few ice cubes so they don’t burn their mouths!
Located near store off Kirkland’s 85th corridor, Pho House is the only local pho I haven’t personally tasted. But its Google rating based on 22 reviews is four out of five stars, so it's worth checking out.
Located in the heart of downtown Kirkland on Park Lane, this is my least favorite pho restaurant, scoring low in part on flavor and in part because of its glaringly white interior. The pho broth here is almost citrus tasting instead of aromatic with spices. However, it is ideally located to bring in the downtown lunch crowd, consisting of many Asian people -- possibly a sign that this version of pho is an acceptable alternative.
Pho Than Brothers
For years, this Seattle-based chain has set the bar on local pho. With 14 locations around Seattle and the Eastside, the operators know their stuff. There is a location close by Leary Way in Redmond, but Kirkland has its own storefront in the Kingsgate shopping center near the Kingsgate Ice Arena. It appears that the former Pho Basil was replaced by this Than Brothers restaurant.
The interior is less than inspiring, but Than Brothers does have the largest array of pho options in the area. And they serve diners a plate of free cream puffs, a Vietnamese tradition picked up from the French colonists of the 18th and 19th centuries. If you’ve ever ordered a bahn mi sandwich, that crusty baguette is an obvious cue to these French influences -- and perhaps one of the very best things to come out of the rather unpleasant stain of European colonization efforts.
This was a wonderful surprise find thanks to a friend’s recommendation. If you don’t know where to look, you might never get to experience this place, tucked around the corner from Starbuck’s in Parkplace. Across the parking lot is the and .
Saigon Jade’s feels clean and organized, though not particularly inventive inside. But who cares, because the pho is every bit as good as it should be -- and popular from glancing around at the busy lunch crowd. The shrimp salad rolls have quite a pinch of fresh basil leaves wrapped inside, giving them an extra fresh burst of flavor.
For more tips on how to enjoy pho, check out the blog Vietnamese Pho Noodles.