Don Day’s Wife and I divide our lives almost equally between Toronto and San Miguel de Allende, two, obviously, very different cities. But what we eat in each of those cities varies very little. With one very big exception.
In Toronto, a week rarely goes by where we don’t go out for our cherished Asian soup. Don Day’s Wife favors the Japanese pork broth, ramen. Don Day favors the Vietnamese beef broth, pho. And Don Day usually wins this one. Not because he has perfected the power of persuasion over women. But because, in our Toronto neighborhood, we can walk to our choice of many pho restaurants. Ramen requires wheels.
In San Miguel, a year can go by without a single slurp of pho. It’s not that it isn’t available. One restaurant has had it on its menu for at least ten years. It’s just that there hasn’t been a single San Miguel pho that we’ve considered good enough to be regular fare. Until recently.
Recently, Marcela Bolaño and Ximena de Léon Campomanes, the owners of San Miguel restaurant Marsala, did something that restauranteurs rarely do. They took a holiday.
“I tried pho at this very special place when I was living in L.A.”, said Chef Marcela, “and then I had it again in London. I just fell in love with pho. I said if we get to Asia it has to be Vietnam. Then this year we finally had the opportunity. It was so different. The food was extraordinary.”
When Marcela and Ximena returned from Vietnam, they decided to take their memories and celebrate them with two additions to their menu, an Asian salad with caramelized pork loin and…you guessed it…pho.
First, I should make sure you know what pho is. Though pho ranked as number 28 on the list of the world’s most delicious foods in a survey by CNN, I realize there are still a few who haven’t had the pleasure.
Actually, first I should make sure you know how pho sounds. Despite Vietnam being a former French colony, it would be false to pronounce it like the French word faux. Pho is prounced fuh, a word that seems to sound extremely weird coming out of everyone’s mouth except the Vietnamese. It is also a word that, when spoken, requires you to screw up your face like a dog sniffing another dog’s…well you know what.
Pho is not one of those ancient Asian dishes handed down from generation to generation through century after century. Pho began in the early 20th Century probably in a province southeast of Hanoi. Soon, however, it became the most popular street food throughout the country and, early in the morning and sometimes early in the evening, vendors would walk through the streets with mobile kitchens hanging at each end of a bamboo pole (there are still a few but that may be mostly for North American tourists).
Pho is, today, almost always a breakfast dish, the bacon and eggs of Vietnam, the national dish of Vietnam, and you’ll find it at thousands of street stalls decorated with stark lighting, plastic stools and fat paper napkin dispensers; you’ll even find pho restaurant chains.
Andrea Nguyen, in The Pho Cookbook, says, “Pho is so elemental to Vietnamese culture that people talk about it in terms of romantic relationships. Rice is the dutiful wife you can rely on. Pho is the flirty mistress you slip away to visit.”
As mentioned, my flirtation with pho is now done at Marsala and it is best described as a pleasure in four acts: The noodles. The broth. The meat. And the toppings. When they all come together, you have one unphogettable dish.
Pho noodles are rice noodles. In Hanoi (and Toronto, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco and probably many other North American cities), they are often fresh noodles made daily from scratch at the restaurant or a local market. Marsala’s noodles are not fresh, they are dried and, to me, it’s understandable that, when you might only be selling three or four bowls a day, you are not going to spend an hour or two of that day making fresh noodles. I have no problem with dried. I almost always prefer dried to fresh noodles when I’m eating Italian pasta.
Chef Marcela’s dried noodles are, however, the real thing, Dragon Phoenix rice sticks imported from Vietnam.
“I spent a lot of time trying to find the 3 mm size”, said Marcela. “I could get the 1, the 5 and the 10. I wanted a size that wasn’t too thick to absorb all of the flavors of the broth but nothing too skinny like vermicelli. Now I have it. Mariana at Luna de Queso (a San Miguel gourmet food shop) found the 3 mm for me.”
Good pho noodles are springy and never mushy. Marsala’s noodles are tender with a nice, resilient body.
Now some people might tell you the noodles are the most important part of the four pleasures of pho and they might use the excuse that pho is actually a contraction of bahn pho which means noodles. I will tell you that the broth is the most important part of pho.
Some might also tell you that pho broth can be made with chicken. It will probably be told to you by people who don’t eat red meat so I would completely disregard what they say. Though she has made pho ga, or chicken pho in the past, Marcela Bolaño agrees that the best pho is made with beef and called pho bo. Marsala makes pho bo.
Chicken was originally, along with pork, one of the two traditional Vietnamese meats. There were cattle in Vietnam, but cattle were work animals. Then the French arrived. And a favorite food of the French was the cow. But not all of the cow. They almost never ate the legs and rarely ate the heads and tails. So the Vietnamese took those parts and they boiled them until fall-apart tender and so the broth for pho was born.
Today, different pho recipes call for very different parts of the animal but all call for hours of cooking. Marcela Bolaño makes hers primarily from shank and oxtail and gently simmers the broth for eight to ten hours.
“I don’t roast the bones, I simply soak them in water”, said Marcela. I want the flavor but not the color. It is very important that the broth is clear; it should almost be transparent.”
“The shank bones have all of that wonderful marrow and more flavor comes from the tail than anywhere else on the animal”, Marcela continued.
The second part of pho broth is the spicing, the aromatics that lift it from a simple au jus to the very best beef soup in the world.
Marcela told me, “I start by charring ginger and shallots…they use a lot of shallots in Vietnam due to the French influence…and then peel off all of the skin so that none of the charred bits go in the broth and spoil the color.”
“I toast all of the spices, black cardamom…which is not the same as green cardamom from India…this has a smoky flavor…plus star anise, cinnamon, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cloves and allspice.”
“And near the end I add the very important fish sauce. I don’t want the flavor of it to boil away.”
There’s a good balance in the spicing of Marsala’s pho broth with no element jumping out at you, with hardly any element being recognizable. That is how a good pho broth should be.
Part three of the four pleasures of pho comes next. The meat. It can come from the pot where the broth was made, it can be cooked separately or it can be raw. Marsala uses the shank and oxtail from the stew pot and separately prepares thin slices of brisket. The brisket has a little give, the rest melts in your mouth.
“I brine the brisket first and then sous vide it for 18 hours”, said Chef Marcela.
Some traditionalists (and menudo lovers) might be disappointed that, at Marsala, there’s no rare flank, no tripe, no tendons, no rubbery meatballs, all ingredients that might be offered in a restaurant totally dedicated to pho. I wasn’t disappointed (and I’m a guy who likes icky bits). And Don Day’s Wife absolutely, definitely wasn’t. I will quote a Vietnamese acquaintance: “I never eat tripe or tendon unless my grandmother puts them in my bowl.”
Now if you were to ask me what the great strengths of Marsala the restaurant are, up near the top would be presentation. With her frequently changing hair color and fashions to match, flair is obviously important to Marcela Bolaño and she brings that flair to the table.
Marcela does something with her pho that even a full-fledged phonatic like Don Day had never seen before. The bubbling broth arrives in an enamel jug and is poured by the server over the noodles and beef, sending the aromatic steam circling around your head. Euphoria.
The art of presentation continues with the fourth and last part of pho, the toppings, the condiments, the accoutrements. At Marsala they arrive arranged on a personalized cutting board. They’re worthy of being on a canvas.
On the wooden board are bamboo shoots, crisped by about 30 seconds of blanching; chopped young onions; wedges of key lime; Thai basil, cilantro and mint on a bed of lettuce; a bowl of hoisin sauce; and a bowl of rice wine vinegar with shaved serrano peppers.
Most of Marsala’s toppings are fairly standard except for that rice wine vinegar.
Now some enthusiasts put every topping in their pho. Some put very few toppings in their pho. Don Day is a middleman. I skip the bamboo shoots (I think it detracts from the richness of the broth). I squeeze about a quarter of a lime but no more (the lime adds sweetness which I know seems weird from a fruit that’s sour). I put in about half the onions and all the green spices but not the lettuce (“I’m not a lettuce person either” admits Marcela). And then I go into a quandary.
On the tables of Toronto restaurants that specialize in pho, you will absolutely always find two things. Tương đen and tương đỏ (congrats to me for figuring out how to type those letters), commonly known as hoisin and sriracha. These two squeezy bottles are the salt and pepper shakers of the pho world. To some, not swirling chocolatey brown hoisin and Crayola red sriracha into your pho is unthinkable. To others, swirling hoisin and Sriracha into your pho is an abomination. Again Don Day takes the middle lane. I always have a few sticks and spoons of pho first without either of the sauces. Then I add a minimal amount of each, swirl and test and, usually add one more squirt of Sriracha.
Oh and I should add, there is one other group of pho eaters. They are the dippers; they like their pho SOS (diner lingo for sauce on side) and dip their meat. This group seems to tolerated by both the sauce swirlers and the non-swirlers.
OK, now back on the plane from Toronto to Mexico and back inside Marsala. As mentioned previously, Marsala brings out little bowls of hoisin and chile-spiced rice wine vinegar. I like the little porcelain bowls; they’re much classier than plastic bottles but I don’t like the vinegar.
“Where is the sriracha?”, I ask the server. I get a look back that suggests she is a non-swirler (it’s best described as half frown/half amazement) but she dutifully strides back to the kitchen returning with a little bowl of my scarlet heating device while I wonder if every kitchen in the universe now has a bottle of sriracha somewhere and could California’s masterful creation be the secret to the U.S.’s return to manufacturing glory.
I ask Chef Marcela, “Why no sriracha on your fancy wooden board?”
She tells me, “You know if you ask for it, I have it. I don’t want the rich flavors to disappear in the sriracha. It is so strong, so peppery, so much garlic.”
“I prefer the flavor of the red serranos in the vinegar. I like the color contrast when everything else is green. But I only put a few drops in.”
Now what else can I tell you about having pho at Marsala? Don’t wear your white shirt, especially the linen one that takes twenty minutes to iron. Never go with your mother for she will attempt to correct your posture when you hang your head over the bowl; stooping is a perfectly acceptable thing to do in Vietnam. Do not try to spin your noodles around your chopsticks; spinning is an unacceptable thing to do in Vietnam. Do ask for a fork if you are uncomfortable with sticks…but again no spinning. And do order Marsala’s pho often so it doesn’t disappear off the menu.
In Vietnamese poet Tu Mo’s homage to pho, he says “Upon death, the altar offerings should include it.”
If I die before I wake, may Marsala cater my wake.
Marsala is located at Calle Doctor Ignacio Hernández Macías 48 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open on Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.