I really don’t need a reason to justify making a bowl of pho the cornerstone of a weekday lunch, although I always seem to come up with one. I might blame it on the weather, stress from a current project, a nondescript ailing of my constitution that can only be remedied by a nest of noodles submerged in a rich broth that has been simmering away since the dark hours of the morning.
The key to that last sentence was broth, which at the end of the day is the really interesting thing about a bowl of pho because the diversity of the dish takes place there. Diners expect rice noodles, thin cuts of meat that slowly cook before your eyes, a familiar plate of basil, cilantro, mung bean sprouts, fiery chiles and a slice of lime. But the broth, that is where the arguments among lovers of this Vietnamese soup live. And truth be told, any food worth arguing over is probably one I want to eat.
When it comes to broth, some can’t get enough of the familiar warm apple pie spices – cinnamon and cloves. Others appreciate a burst of licorice that comes from star anise pods. Others still are constantly on the search from a perfect balance of flavors – harmony in a bowl. Pho loves can spend years finding a bowl that is perfect for their tastes, or finding a collection of bowls that are perfect for a specific mood, or type of weather.
A steaming bowl of pho from Pho Long is fantastic because it turns down the volume on all the traditional flavors people look for in a broth, opting instead for a deep and murky beef stock that is largely unique here in St. Louis. It is, for me, the beef lover’s – dare I say, and with all due respect, the burger lover’s – bowl of pho.
A favorite is pho tai chin, which builds layers of flavor atop noodles and broth by adding wafer-thin slices of eye of round steak and tender beef brisket that slowly simmer away in the soup. A healthy addition of basil, cilantro and a squeeze of citrus wake up some of the spice that is hidden in that beef broth but not to the point that they steal the show. After all, this particular soup is all about the beef.
Pho Long’s menu is short, offering a handful of variations on pho and not much else. That being said, crispy egg rolls are not to be missed as a starter. They are rolled thin and fried to create a golden crust that pairs with a deliciously funky fish sauce. These egg rolls are light, crisp and delicate and will have you giving the stink eye to the frozen egg rolls you get from your favorite takeout spot.
And to drink? Make for a glass of Vietnamese coffee, steeped tableside and then poured over ice at your own pace. Its distinctive bite from dark roasted beans and the mouth coating sweetness of creamy condensed milk make for a fitting finish to this most excellent and unexpected bowl of pho.
Pho Long, 8627 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.997.1218, facebook.com/pholongstl
Tired of reheating last night's dinner for lunch? Every Monday, food writer Andrew Mark Veety guides you to some of the best midday meals in the St. Louis region, with great places to bring clients or enjoy an outing with your co-workers. Missed one of his columns? Check them out here.
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