Pho—Vietnamese noodle soup (pronounced fuh)—is best enjoyed with others. The classic dine-in experience—digging into a bowl of Pho amid the chatter and bustle of an animated restaurant—has been lost this past year while sheltering-in-place. Nevertheless, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Pho Ha Noi, a cozy Vietnamese restaurant in Cupertino, California, has managed, through the quality of its ingredients and simple elegance of its packaging, to preserve the magic of Pho in take-out orders.
Like a DIY kit, the Special Combination Pho which we ordered arrives in multiple pieces: A clear plastic container of amber beef broth, too hot to touch. A display of various cuts of beef—ranging from precooked hemispherical meatballs to a saran-wrapped package of raw flank steak sliced paper-thin and against the grain—resting on a bed of glistening rice noodles. A salad of herbs in individual Ziplock bags, coated with misty dew drops like a produce aisle at the supermarket. The dish, when assembled, turns into a lush garden. Translucent bean sprouts, menacing jalapeno slices, and sprigs of fragrant basil sprout from a field of green onion and cilantro. And with a splash of hot broth, the bowl of Pho comes to life.
The flavors sing an ethereal tune to my tongue. Enveloped by the broth, the herbs, vegetables, and beef all contribute to the piquancy of Pho, a true culinary masterpiece. But beware! —the slices of raw jalapeno, slyly camouflaged among the other greens, deliver notes of intense biting heat. Walking away from the noodle soup after taking your first bite is impossible. Don’t believe me? Try for yourself.
Halfway through the meal, I realize that Pho Ha Noi has crafted a dish of opposites. Fragrant basil leaves, just enough to extinguish the heat brought by the peppers. Chewy beef tendon to complement the crunchy mung bean sprouts. The semi-sweet rice noodles dance harmoniously with hints of tangy lime. Remove a single ingredient and the dish would lose the essence of Pho—an immaculate assembly of elementary flavors.
And yet the dish is simple. So simple that, given the pre-prepped ingredients, the noodle soup comes together in seconds. No sous-vide-ing, blanching, or caramelizing. The only requirements: fresh ingredients and a pot to simmer the stock, objects that could be found in a medieval kitchen (though Pho was only created in the early 1900s).
Whether you’re a first-timer or a “Pho-natic,” allow this dish to whisk you away to better times before COVID-19. Times when we could explore the world through traveling or simply sitting down at a restaurant to discover an authentic meal. So, to those yearning for a culinary adventure after months of sheltering-in-place, look no further than a bowl of noodle soup from Pho Ha Noi.
Brian Chen is a 17-year-old rising high school senior in California who enjoys writing short stories, prose, and poetry. He serves as the editor-in-chief for the literature and media magazine of his high school. His works won several awards at the New York Times Writing Contest and Scholastic Art & Writing Contests.