First, what is pho really?
Pho, properly spelled “phở," is pronounced “fuh” (though many mispronounce it “foe”). As Tien Nguyen recently noted in Lucky Peach magazine (in an entire issue devoted to the stuff!), the word and the pronunciation lend itself to puns, and many a pho establishment has availed itself of that opportunity. Perhaps the most notable is Pho King *insert adolescent chuckle here*. There’s one in San Diego and pretty much every other city, but it often seems they’re rarely the place to find the best bowl in town.
There are generally four main moving parts to a bowl of pho: the broth, the noodles, the meat, and the garnishes (bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, lime, and chili peppers are common). The broth and the meat for phở is generally beef, though depending on how strict you want to be in your definition of the term “pho,” there are versions involving chicken, duck, pork, and various seafood, as well. Even the seafood-based bowls often feature a beef broth built by lovingly simmering bones, oxtails, and the undesirable parts of the cow for many hours.
But pho broth is far more than a stock, rich and long-simmered as it is. It owes its ethereal flavor profile to charred ginger and onion, on the one hand, and a bevy of aromatic herbs and spices -- particularly cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, black pepper, and cloves -- on the other.
Most phở uses flat rice noodles. (Indeed, the word “pho” is likely a corruption of the Cantonese word phaan meaning “flat rice noodles.”) It's no accident that the name of the dish is also the name of the noodles (“banh pho”). While the choice of protein usually determines the name of a bowl of pho, at the end of the day, pho is a noodle dish -- not a meat one.
Pho traces its origins back to Hanoi at the turn of the previous century, the product of a cross-cultural collision between Vietnam’s French occupiers (and their taste for beef), thrifty butchers, street vendors making use of the non-glory cuts (the ones the French didn’t want), and customers (and vendors) from the neighboring provinces of China. It was strictly a Northern Vietnamese dish until the partition of the country at the end of the French occupation in 1954, when millions fled south to Saigon, bringing their pho with them. The migration continued -- and spread -- as South Vietnamese headed across the Pacific to America following the end of the Vietnam War.