"I brought some whiskey," chef Charles Phan says, setting down a bottle of Four Roses on a long wooden table.
It's a couple hours before the final dinner of the totally packed, three-day pop-up of Phan's famed San Francisco Vietnamese restaurant, The Slanted Door, at Brooklyn's Wythe Hotel—hence the bourbon—and now in the calm before the preservice storm, Phan has slipped away to school us in the art of making pho bo (see the recipe).
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the restaurant, which has uprooted three times—getting bigger with each move—and climbed its way to become the highest grossing independently owned restaurant in all of California. And his cooking there has earned Phan a James Beard Award.
"I feel kind of old. Twenty years is a long time for anything, especially a restaurant," Phan says with a chuckle. "I tell people that I started The Slanted Door when I was 10 years old, so I kind of lie."
For the benchmark birthday, he's considering giving the restaurant, now housed in a sweeping space in the Ferry Building, a face-lift: "Restaurants are like your body," Phan explains. "When you get old, you need rejuvenation." But otherwise, Phan isn't really changing anything. He'll continue cranking out the nuanced California-inspired Vietnamese cuisine he's celebrated for and, more importantly, making and eating pho bo, the country's iconic noodle soup filled with brisket, torn Thai basil, lime juice and slivers of raw beef, at least a few times a week.
That's why he recently flew across the country on a cold February afternoon—to spread California sunshine in the form of many much-needed bowls of pho.
"It's one of my favorite soups, so calming and soothing," Phan says. "It's very simple and pure, not a whole lot."
Some would beg to differ. Many Vietnamese food traditionalists warn against making pho at home; they would argue that achieving crystal clear but flavorful stock is fussy, and charring the onions and ginger to infuse the broth is complicated. But according to Phan, all you need is an oven (charred onion and ginger, conquered), a bunch of bones and a little time.
"The secret to making great pho is having a variety of bones to make a very rich broth," he instructs. "The more bones you have, the better the broth."
Phan relies on a combination of shank, neck, oxtail and marrow bones, blanching the hell out of the first three to flush out impurities, then simmering them together for a few hours until they impart their beefiness and lip-coating fattiness in the spice-laden broth.
Though the stock is low and slow, the assembly to a great bowl of pho bo requires some speed. Obviously, Phan's a pro. In what seems like a few seconds, he snips sticky rice noodles and drops them into a warmed bowl. On top go layers of brisket and raw beef, a slosh of that cinnamon and star anise-spiced broth, a small handful of green onions and cilantro, and an all-important spoonful of leftover beef fat, ramen style.
Lapping up Phan's luscious, intensely beefy version, we can see why Phan has turned eating pho into a weekly habit.
"People don't seem to get sick of it," Phan says. "It's really simple and straightforward, and that's why we eat it."
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