Mama N makes the best pho, hands down. My family will tell you that Mama N’s has no comparison. That it is peerless. So what I will tell you next can get me into huge trouble. I might have found a place that makes pho almost, almost, almost as pho-nominal (sorry! I can’t help the corny puns!). It is so very close.
Now if you talk to most Vietnamese expats and tell them that the best pho in Vietnam is found in Hanoi, they will look at you like you are absolutely nuts. You’ll get the face sneer . “Poor child, clearly you know nothing about good food.”
I should begin by telling you that there is a very marked distinction between northern Vietnamese (NVN) pho and southern Vietnamese (SVN) pho.
The origins of pho are firmly planted in northern Vietnam; it’s the birthplace of pho and where you will find it in its purest form. NVN pho is much lighter on spices (star anise, cinnamon, fennel, etc). The broth is rich from slow-simmered beef bones-yet still light and fragrant. It’s very delicately balanced so that you should not be able to tell what exact spices are in the broth. The focus is on the purity and nuanced spice of the broth. In fact, this one of the very few Vietnamese dishes that is not made with fish sauce! Traditionally, only salt. Although fish sauce can be used for finishing, but never during cooking. It’s not served with a bunch of condiments. Just a little vinegar, if you wish, chilis, a few herbs, and scallions. With a broth this ethereal, you do not want to hide it with blobs of sriracha and hoisin. Mama N is from northern Vietnam, and thus, her pho broth is very much influenced by this style.
A morsel of trivia: sriracha (the rooster brand stuff, not Thai sriracha which is different) is completely a Vietnamese-American thing. You might find it in Vietnam now, but it’s actually because sriracha has crossed the Pacific in the opposite direction!
Now, the stuff you are familiar with here in the U.S. is southern Vietnamese-style pho. Because how many northern Vietnamese migrated to the U.S.? Not very many in comparison to southern Vietnamese. SVN pho is bold. It’s much heavier on spices. If you’re good, you can easily pick out the ratio of spices in a SVN pho broth. For me, the spices are sometimes just too overwhelming and it masks the beauty of the broth itself. The condiments are also big and bold: purple basil, culantro, cilantro, lime, mung bean sprouts, chilis, sriracha, and hoisin. I guess if you have a sub-par broth, you’ve got to gussy her up somehow…In all seriousness, though, it’s just a very different style of pho.
I should tell you that in the U.S., I’ve only ever had passable-to-OK pho at restaurants (holy star anise, Batman!). It’s because I’ve grown up with the sweet nectar that is Mama N’s pho and, really, nothing else could compare. Until now. (Mama N, I know you’re reading this! I said compare. Yours is still the best. I swear.)