Seattle's Essential Dishes: Pho Tai from Pho Bac


Pho tai from the original location of Pho Bac:

From the parking lot of the original Pho Bac--the triangular bunker situated in the weird triangle where Jackson, Boren and Rainier all come together--you can see three different pho shops without straining. Then another Vietnamese restaurant, too. One focusing on things other than the simple joys of soup, well made. Around the corner and just out of sight is a place for teppanyaki. Down the street there is dim sum. One can score bahn mi sandwiches, spring rolls and noodles almost anywhere.

But the original location of Pho Bac sits at the center of all this. It's a place where a generation of Seattleites were first introduced to pho--where they first came to love it and crave it--and stands now as the favorite of so many who remember this place when it was even more nondescript than it is today. Like before it had a sign. Or a menu that wasn't just one line written on a piece of paper hung on the wall: Beef Noodle Soup.

Of all the many, many Vietnamese restaurants, noodle shops and pho joints existing in the International District and beyond, Pho Bac is often spoken of as the best. The ingredients are fresh and, depending on your timing, sometimes straight from the market. The service is almost impossibly quick. It is cheap like you wouldn't believe.

But the thing that always gets me is simply the broth. Like a living thing, it has moods and tempers. Show up for breakfast and it might be blonder and lighter than you expect while, by day's end, it will have taken on complex notes of savory richness and a cloudy aspect almost like miso with its thunderheads of bean paste swirling up from the depths. And while one can order everything on the board (from meatballs and tripe to brisket, tendon and flank) in a single bowl for the same price as one more focused on a single protein, the single-meat approach is the one I prefer. Pho Tai (beef broth with thin-sliced top round steak cooked in the hot liquid) is the purest form of Pho Bac's soup, the way all the intricacies of the broth can be best appreciated. And while I am not above adding a little bo vien to my tai (or eating some tripe when I need a cheap and effective hangover cure), I still love the simple things best and would, if I could, simply load up one of those camel packs with Pho Bac's broth and spend my day walking the streets, sipping at it like water.

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