Updated 12-30-18. Ordering a bowl of Vietnamese pho is as easy as eating it. The one rule to remember is to just order what you want, if you know what you want, that is. So if you didn't grow up eating pho, or you may even have ordered pho yourself before, here are a few tips to enhance your pho eating experience and order pho like a pho expert.
- Ordering by the number is for... the novice. Actually, you don't need to look at the menu if you're going to have pho. Don't worry about the seemingly endless choices of pho on the menu, and certainly don't order by the numbers. As soon as you sit down at your table, you're ready to order. In fact for the best and quickest service, don't tell the server to give you a minute or two. Just know what you want and the restaurant would appreciate your quick decision. Really, there is a beef and there's a chicken variety of pho, what you could one want? Or if you must have vegan pho then just ask them. Just don't mention any seafood or shrimp pho here; they don't exist in the lovingpho.com world.
- Pho menu. If you must look at the menu then the following can help. There can be up to 20+ items for pho, but there are really 4 varieties you'd care about.
- By far the largest group (first 15 or so) is for pho bo (beef pho) which you can order in any combination and permutation of meat cuts (see 6 and 7 below). The first and second are almost always reserved for Pho Dac Biet Xe Lua (locomotive size combo-everything including the kitchen sink) and Pho Dac Biet (large size combo). Beside Xe Lửa (locomotive,) Vietnamese also use other large metal man-made machines to denote "very large" size pho bowls, so you may find such item as Phở Tàu Bay (airplane,) Phở Hàng Không Mẫu Hạm (aircraft carrier,) and Phở Xe Tăng (a tank, as in the panzer.) Ha ha, we were in a war, you know.
- The rest are just various combinations of available meat (beef) types. If you want something not on the menu, just say it. For example, if you want pho bo with absolutely no meat, then they'll make it for you. Parents order these for kids all the time.
- The next group is pho ga. There are not that many ways to do pho ga, so you may have 1 or 2 items here.
- Pho chay or vegetarian pho. For restaurants offering real pho chay (absolutely no meat, using separate preparation and cooking utensils), a few will show up at the end of the pho group on the menu or in a specialty section. If pho chay is not on the menu and you still want some, then just ask them. It's a good chance that they have them.
- Easy choices: pho bo or pho ga. There really are 2 types of pho, beef and chicken. You want to decide which pho you want. The default is always pho bo.
- Bowl size. Most pho places will have regular and large sizes, with kid size if you really want it (or just order a larger size with an extra bowl to share with the young one). Pho Dac Biet Xe Lua mentioned above is really the combo in large size, while the Pho Dac Biet is just a combo regular size. If you're lucky you will find a restaurant that will go out of its way to give you more food than you want. Check out my friend Mason's post on "Pho Hoa Thai: Bay Area Pho" or my own "Biggest Bowl of Pho I Ever Had: North York, Toronto." A side note: Some years back you could even find "Pho hang knong mau ham" which translates to aircraft-carrier-size pho, the mother of all pho! Or if you're in the Bay Area, Pho Garden's Pho Challenge has got the size you want.
- Ordering pho ga. If you want pho ga, you'll have one of 2 scenarios:
- White meat chicken pieces already in the bowl when served, or
- White or dark chicken meat (bones on) on the side with a side ginger fish sauce for dipping. Run-of-the-mill restaurants will only serve the first choice mentioned above, but good pho shops will offer chicken on the side. Rarely will a restaurant do both; there's no reason to do the former when you're already offering the latter. And if they have free-range chicken: extra goodness!
- Ordering pho bo. If you want pho bo, it's still pretty simple. Here's what you need to know:
- You can mix and match any of the available cuts and types of beef, regardless of what the menu says.
- Available are:
- bò chín (sliced well-done flank or brisket),
- bò tái (sliced rare tenderloin, eye of round, or ribeye),
- nạm (flank),
- vè dòn (crunchy flank),
- gầu (fatty brisket),
- gân (tendon),
- sách (tripe) and
- bò viên (beef meatballs, with or without tendon).
- You can order bò viên and bò tái as side dishes. Bò tái slices are raw to be dipped in the hot broth at the table by the pho consumer. Just be aware that restaurants may refuse to offer this due to health department regulations.
- Other options. You'd never guess but there are ways to further customize your pho. This is what the pho connoisseurs do. Depending on your preferences, and if you have a good restaurant that knows how to serve pho, just ask for any of the following:
- Nước trong (non-fat broth, this is what everyone gets by default),
- Nước béo (fatty broth, with extra fat, yum...),
- Tái sống (very rare meat),
- Ít bánh (less noodle, "banh" refers to "banh pho" which is of course the pho noodle itself),
- Nhiều bánh (more noodle),
- Ít thịt (less meat)
- Nước béo hành trần (fatty broth with blanched onions on the side),
- Giá chín (side order of steamed bean sprouts),
- Không hành (no scallions),
- Không hành ngò (no scallions/cilantro),
- Không hành tây (no onions),
giầmdầm giấm (thinly sliced onions in vinegar, on the side)
You're now ready for some real serious pho adventures. For most people a regular size bowl of pho bo is totally sufficient. But for a few, getting pho exactly right can only be achieved by ordering pho their own way. If a restaurant doesn't serve as described in these tips, then their pho quality may be questionable.
So have fun on your next pho outing. And let us know how you make out.