An Invitation to Taste
By John Schenck
Photo by Thad Russell
The first few times I stopped in for a bowl of pho at Pho Paradise, I was amused by the idea that you pronounced pho like faux in French, meaning false. As I sat in the utilitarian storefront space on Broad Street in Providence consuming my order of #27, Pho Dac Biet, beef broth with thinly sliced eye round steak, well-done flank, brisket, tendon and tripe, I’d reflect on how close to paradise I really was. Nothing faux about it.
Becoming somewhat of a regular lunchtime fixture at Pho Paradise, one day I got to talking with Son Ho, who owns Pho Paradise, as well as Phonatic on Angell Street. When discussing the soup, he’d use a word that sounded a lot like fuh, or even fuhr.When I finally understood that his fuh was my faux, I tried to get it right—but old habits die hard.
Most of the time I still say pho like faux, and I also understand that I’m doing what most of Ho’s non-Asian customers do. Nevertheless, when they order #26 (extra large) or #27 (large or small), they prepare themselves for one of the world’s great soup experiences.
Said to have developed in Vietnam (then French Indochina) in the late 19th century, the dish incorporates elements of Vietnamese, Chinese and French cooking. In fact, the word pho itself may derive from the French pot au feu, and of course the way the French say feu may account for the way the Vietnamese say fuh.
When the soup is delivered to the table, I am first struck by the aroma: complex, beefy, spicy. It’s beef stock made by simmering beef bones with charred onions and spices including star anise, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. This is not your grandmother’s beef broth. In addition to various cuts of beef at various degrees of doneness, the broth also holds a copious helping of rice noodles, or banh pho. Tender, slippery, they are clearly related to spaghetti yet completely different. At first they resist, then almost dissolve in your mouth.
Part of the full pho experience is the side dish of garnishes: green Thai basil, zesty lime wedges, spicy sliced chilies (usually jalapeño) and crunchy bean sprouts. Adding these fresh flavors to the soup is a matter of taste—I use pretty much all of everything. The presentation is very elegant and would not be at all out of place in a much more lavish setting. But you really have to exert yourself to spend more than $8 on a hearty lunch, even less for a smaller portion. (A plentiful medium bowl of pho is $6.50.)
Recently I ate at Pho Paradise with renowned Providence chef Neath Pal, who squirted a pool of sriracha (garlic chili sauce) and hoisin sauce onto his side plate and then dipped the beef from his soup in the sauces. I wanted to do what he did, and I have to report that we were both sweating profusely and extremely happy by the time we set our
spoons and chopsticks down, bellies full.
Happiness in a bowl, and nothing faux about it.
337 Broad St., Providence
165 Angell St., Providence
John Schenck is a poet, essayist, and co-author, with Deborah Moxham, of The Providence Guide to the 91 Best Restaurants.