PHO THAN BROTHERS’ 516 Broadway E., 568-7218 11 a.m.-10 p.m. every day 4207 University Way N.E., 633-1735 10 a.m.-9 p.m. every day 7714 Aurora N., 527-5973 10 a.m.-9 p.m. every day cash only / no alcohol
CHALK IT UP to effective marketing, but soup really is good food. It cures what ails you, it comes in an infinite variety of flavors, and even when you’re feeling delicate (read: hungover), it goes down smoothly. Asian soups, in particular, bring us delightfully healthy combinations of herbs, vegetables, and proteins that improve the immune system and boost the emotional fortitude we require in this postholiday, alcohol-poisoned time of renewal and resolution. Of these Asian soups, pho is king. Sure, hot and sour is tangily magnificent, and tom kha gai is remarkable for its combination of flavors and textures; it’s easily possible to build a meal around either of them, but a bowl does not satisfy by itself—additional platters are required to round out the feast. Only pho—simple, beefy, noodly pho—can provide us with that surreal sense of woozy comfort that comes from a perfect bowl of soup.
Like all interesting dishes (and people), pho has a murky past. It seems to have arisen in the late 1800s; food historians still bicker over which imperialist culture should receive credit for its development. Both the French and the Chinese claim bragging rights, and the word “pho” is supposedly derived from feu, as it reputedly came about when Vietnamese chefs attempted to make pot-au-feu for their French rulers. While it makes sense to credit the French with popularizing beef in Vietnam, the rice noodles and delicate seasonings that make pho so tasty seem more obviously Chinese in origin. Wherever the truth lies, pho is currently found alongside a plate of basil, bean sprouts, lime, and peppers, and is based on a mild broth scented with onions, cinnamon, cilantro, and—reefer madness!–marijuana. While there are no credible reports of that most traditional of herbs being used locally, perhaps there’s more than one reason this soup makes such a pleasing meal.
Seattle has more pho shops than you can shake a stick at, offering various versions with vegetables, chicken, pork, or prawns, as well as the customary bovine-based selections of flank steak, brisket, eye of round, tripe, and soft tendon. While every neighborhood phoeteria has its loyal following, not all pho is created equal. The two most important elements of good pho are lean meats and absolutely fresh garnishes. When the meat is the least bit fatty, the broth becomes coated with an entirely unappetizing greasy haze after about 90 seconds—unacceptable at all times, but especially so when you are in need of culinary comfort. Let us not speak of limp beans sprouts; their gray and watery wilt is too depressing to dwell on for long, and lackadaisical peppers, parched limes, and sad, slumped basil have no place on a dining table.
HAPPILY, EXCELLENT PHO is available throughout the city, and it’s accompanied by excellent service, excellent prices, and excellent cream puffs. Pho Than Brothers’ has three locations that are open every day from midmorning until well past the standard dinner hour. At each location, you’ll find clean, comfortable booths with menus and a handful of positive reviews from years past under the glass tabletop. As soon as you sit down, a server appears with water, a plate of garnishes, and, delightfully, a fresh cream puff for every member of your party. The size of a teacup, these are everything a cream puff should be—rich and delicate, with a faint vanilla flavor. There’s no need to start fighting your companions for their puffs, as extras are available at absurdly low prices—three for $1.25. Yes, it’s cheaper than a stale macaroon in most bakeries, but don’t go nuts and demand a gross; they request a day’s notice if you wish to purchase more than 15 at once.
The menu is a quick read, as all it contains is pho. The Capitol Hill location includes a vegetarian option, thick with mushrooms and tofu; all three outlets offer one version of chicken and 15 different combinations of the five standard types of beef. The eye round steak, served raw to rare on top of the bowl of broth, is off-putting in this age of E. coli, but there has yet to be a single local health department violation in regard to this meat. It is sliced so thinly that the broth cooks it enough to avoid any inherent threat, but paranoid diners can poke it to the bottom and just work on the noodles for an extra minute or so. As this steak is by far the leanest, choosing the plain eye of round soup guarantees the least greasy bowl. All flavors are available in four sizes, with the small ($3.85) providing leftovers for most of us and the extra large ($5.95) capable of feeding a family of four. Where else in town can you dine this well for under $5? The list of drinks includes fresh lemonade ($1.35) and soothingly sweet hot cane tea ($1.75), as well as an assortment of excellent French and Vietnamese coffees.
What with the stress of returning presents and having to work 40-hour weeks again, your body and mind could use a healthy dose of noodly goodness. Put on a cozy sweater and call your friends to meet for a bowl at Than Brothers’. You may return to your usual seediness next week. Tonight, treat your soul, and your tummy, to this fully wholesome experience.