If an eater was presented with a bowl of pho as murky as the celebrated beef broth's history, he'd likely slam down his spoon and chopsticks in disgust. Although the Vietnamese soup dates back only to the late 19th century, the precise circumstances of its invention are a culinary mystery.
"Is this soup an original Vietnamese creation or an adoption of some foreign culinary blend, which has been adapted and integrated into the Vietnamese culture?," Didier Corlou wrote in the preface to a 2003 booklet probing pho's origins. "No one, for certain, knows."
The booklet was the outgrowth of a pho symposium organized by Corlou, a French chef working in Hanoi. At the conference, participants swapped creation stories that centered on Nam Dinh City and coastal preferences for sweet-flavored meat. But the most titillating - and plausible - theory was presented by Corlou, who believes pho was derived from the French dish pot-au-feu.
Another long-simmering beef broth, pot-au-feu is a rustic wintertime one-dish meal perked up with grilled onions, root vegetables and salt. Corlou proposed that feu (French for fire) evolved into pho, integrating noodles borrowed from Chinese tradition.
Pho has a less visible French pedigree than the banh mi, built on a crusty baguette, or the pork pate that's a popular banh mi filler. But prior to the French colonization of Vietnam, cattle were only used as beasts of burden: Eating red meat is a Gallic affectation.
The French connection is made explicit at a Kirkland restaurant which opened last August. Although Pho Mignon isn't fully fancified - Capri Sun's on the drink list - its meat selection features filet mignon, a delicate cut rarely served at pho joints. Fans of filet pho believe the meat's marbling enhances the broth (although they warn it's best to request it on the side, since it cooks quickly.)
"Of the six places I surveyed, this one stood out for décor and service," writes Francie Faure, who documented Pho Mignon for the Pho File. "The pho was exceptional."
Pho Mignon's owner, Quan Du, is a Saigon native who immigrated to the U.S. in 1992.
"Our family (has been in the) restaurant business since we still in Vietnam," Du told Faure. "The broth has to be clear, hot and organized."
And while pho's beginnings may be hazy, meals always end the same way at Pho Mignon.
"A little cup of ice cream is served with the bill," Faure reports.
Our Pho Filers are busily slurping their way across King County, but we still have dozens of unclaimed pho restaurants on our docket. If you'd like to join the effort as a pho census taker, shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.