Blind-taste-testing pho is a herculean challenge. Noodles must be added at the last minute to avoid the “vermicelli sponge” effect, broth must be served scorching hot to cook the thinly sliced raw meat, and the fixin’s—tendon to tripe—don’t exactly appreciate in value. With that in mind, we set out to rank (worst to best) the city’s best take-out pho bo (beef noodle soup), tapping Portland favorites from the Northwest District all the way to 82nd Street. We looked at noodle (banh pho) texture and width, meat quality and flavor, herb and sauce variety, and, the lifeblood of any good pho: the broth. Grab some chopsticks and start slurping!
Testers noted a muddle licorice flavor, like “a cinnamon stick left to steep for too long,” likely due to Fish Sauce's heavily pre-herbed broth. In general, our panel found the pho to be overwhelmingly sweet, and filled to the brim with dry, tough, unseasoned eye of round steak.
Luc Lac’s pale-hued pho was an onion bomb that dominated the playing field. It was so light and allium-forward, that most testers mistook the broth for chicken stock. “Like fast food pho,” noted one taster. Similar to Fish Sauce, Luc Lac’s pho was way too sweet, with tough eye of round thrown in.
This Northeast Portland favorite had a nicely balanced, clove-heavy broth. Our carnivorous staff loved the rich, meaty broth, tender, fatty brisket, and gelatinous tendon. The cons? Overwhelming salt levels and a “greasiness that clings to the lips.”
The veritable pho titan, with three locations across Portland, was Eat Beat’s runner up. It sported a lighter, less assertive broth with hints of anise and clove that flicked on the back of the tongue. The noodles had a stellar, springy texture, and the meat was flavorful and marbled across the board. Bonus points for best packing job, with the raw round steak packed in a separate plastic bag and real, earthy ground chiles for sprinkling.
Our top pick goes to the “Goldilocks” pho from Northeast Sandy’s neighborhood joint. It was the perfect balance of baker’s spices (clove, star anise, cardamom), with an even-keeled salty-sweet ratio. Not overwhelmingly rich; comforting but light. Coupled with fat-laced brisket, flank, tripe, and generous greenery (including herbaceous culantro), Pho An’s beef noodle soup was the ultimate rainy day respite.
Did we miss any of your go-to pho spots? Let us know in the comments below!