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"What people don't understand is different phos are so different," Tracy Wellington, vice president of Seattle's Pho-Natics club, told me.
To prove the point, Wellington and club president Sean Hoops yesterday led me on a tour of five pho joints in Pioneer Square and the International District. We had good pho and bad pho, but none of the noodle soups tasted anything alike.
Hoops and Wellington launched their club two years ago to explore pho diversity--and to celebrate their beloved dish. Since the pair was already making regular pho runs on their lunch breaks from Harborview Medical Center, where both Hoops and Wellington work as nurses, all they needed to do to formalize their obsession was set up a Facebook page and order T-shirts.
The club now has 160 members, with monthly pho eat-ups attracting about two dozen people. Hoops was contacted yesterday by a pho fan in Houston asking how he could start an affiliate organization.
"It's crazy, because it's people from all over," Hoops says. "We have people in Vietnam, we have someone in Australia."
But the vast majority of members are united by Seattle area addresses and an abiding love of pho.
"I crave it," Hoops says. "I have to have it once a week."
If it wasn't for the club, Hoops says, he'd probably get his pho fixes from a short roster of favorite restaurants. Finding new meeting places has forced him to broaden his pho horizons, but we still started our tour at the pho joint he considers the city's best.
When Hoops first visited Pho So 1, he didn't like it. He listed his grievances in a review on Yelp, which Lam and Yvonne Nguyen discovered after they purchased the restaurant from its previous owners. Distressed, they invited Hoops back for another meal.
Hoops returned to find a pho that met his standards.
While Hoops and Wellington pay attention to a restaurant's service, cleanliness, and beer selection, they're most interested in the soup itself.
"Broth is number one," Wellington says.
"These guys get up way early in the morning to make the broth," Hoops says. "It's a really lengthy process. You can tell it's not just bland."
Pho So 1 serves an outstanding pho, distinguished by a vigorous beefiness. To assuage any doubts about the origins of the broth's full-bodied flavor, the Nguyens plate the long-simmering beef shanks they fish out of their enormous pho pot. The meaty, marrow-filled bones are caveman comfort food.
The Nguyens once invited Hoops into the kitchen, where, according to Wellington, he made a mess of his pho, adding far too much oil. The restaurant's standard serving is extraordinarily balanced; fresh scallions give the soup a good snap, and the noodles are clearly articulated.
Pho Bac is the restaurant many Seattle residents associate with pho, a dish Wellington suspects is more popular in Seattle than other cities. "When it's rainy, it's what you want," Wellington says. "Lots of people here have colds, and it clears up your sinuses."
Pho Bac's pho is served with two scrawny jalapeno rings and a single lime wedge, as the kitchen's apparently confident the broth won't need much doctoring. Their sureness is deserved: Pho Bac serves a fine broth, although its beefiness is subordinate to a pronounced fish-sauce tang.
3. Pho Fuchsia, 213 First Ave. S.
"They want to make the Pho Haters," Hoops says.
Hoops concedes he might not have been sold on pho if his first experience with the soup had been disappointing. Pho's been slow to enter the mainstream, and Hoops wonders if phos like the pho served at Pho Fuchsia are to blame.
While the servers at Pho Fuchsia were lovely, the pho was a travesty of processed flavors.
"There's actually a very medicinal slurp," said Hoops. "You guys smell what I'm smelling? I can't figure it out."
"It's very fakey, very plastic," Wellington agreed.
"I think this is the first time I've come somewhere and said I didn't like it," Hoops said, valiantly trying to chew a dry piece of beef. "If this was my first pho, it would kill me for pho."
With so many pho joints in the city, the Pho-Natics rely heavily on Yelp for recommendations. Julie's Garden scores an impressive three-and-one-half star rating from the Yelp crowd, with effusive praise for the spicy chicken pho.
"This is the kind of place I would open," Hoops says of the bustling restaurant. "I like the open kitchen. This would be a cute little place to come with the club."
Hoops and Wellington had a few reservations about the spicy chicken pho: Wellington was put off by the wilted basil on the garnish plate, and Hoops is never happy to see celery, but both agreed it was an interesting rendition. Unlike most phos, the pho at Julie's Garden borrows it preparation from Chinese-American menus. In addition to sliced celery, the soup's adorned with mushrooms, tomatoes, and pineapple, and tastes strongly of baking spices.
"I like it, but I wouldn't want to eat it every day," Hoops said.
Pho Express was Pho Ha, until it recently relocated to the basement of its building. The restaurant still serves an eminently decent pho: While the beef was bland, the broth was clean and satisfying.
The Pho-Natics meet again next week. Hoops and Wellington are terrifically excited about the club's growth, and are scheming to organize a pho field trip to Portland. They're also planning to order Pho-natic hoodies.
"It's really busy," Hoops says. "But it's definitely a good pastime."