Vietnam’s wonder bowl of beef broth and silky noodles is an enduring Portland food crush, up there with fried chicken and doughnuts. You’re not a local if you don’t have a Top 3 pho list. Yet, news to me: Vancouver’s Pho Le belongs in that conversation. A friend of a friend tipped me off at a party. It’s been around in different locations since 1991: a family-run spot that looks like most every strip-mall Vietnamese restaurant, bright and clean as a dentist’s office. I was here for the quintessential pho experience, and Pho Le delivered: the beefy nourishment, the great gingerbread spices, the eye rolls of happiness.
What I didn’t expect was Auntie Tina, a 70-year-old force of nature darting from the kitchen to my table. She literally yanked the garnish plate out of my hands, while power-squeezing lime and tossing jalapeños into the broth. And that broth, gleaned from her mom in Da Nang, takes nearly 12 hours of trimming, simmering, charring, and seasoning. “You make this, you have to love eating, cooking, and hard work,” she crackled, her face scrunching into an impish twinkle. Then came the lessons: Do not just plop a few bean sprouts on top of your pho! Push them into the hot broth, all at once. “Warms them up!” says Tina. Drop basil leaves in one at a time, letting each melt in, releasing not just flavor but smell, the sine qua non of Vietnamese cooking. As for those achingly tender sirloin strips on top? Pluck ’em out of the bowl and dip in spicy sauce. Tina squeezes out the formula: one big blob of Sriracha, topped with one small blob of hoisin. Do not stir.
Tina’s spontaneous “how to eat” pho lesson quickly morphed into the genealogy of this family business, providing a window into all the passion, ungodly hours, and history hidden in a commonplace bowl. Turns out, Tina Le shared her pho secrets with her brother-in-law and Pho Le patriarch Thuong Le years ago. (He’s added his own tweaks.) The broth, rich from an abundance of marrow bones, bobs with meatballs scored in Seattle’s International District and tendon that could be mistaken for a hand-pulled noodle—soft, supple, and slightly al dente.
You want the fully loaded dac diet (“super bowl”), or the surprisingly delicious vegetarian pho, which sings with dry-toasted spices. (The rest of the standard Viet-American menu seems calibrated to its regulars’ tastes—a bit more timid. The exception is the off-the-menu shiitake mushroom and tofu skin salad rolls, truly marvels of juicy goodness.)
Pho Le’s future is now the hands of Thuong’s son Jimmy Le. He grew up in this kitchen, marinating meat by age 5, and still cooks alongside his dad. Thuong escaped Vietnam in the 1980s, raised a tight-knit family, and built a solid business by working like a mule. Older brother Johnny Le is a cool-kid photographer in LA. Jimmy loves photography, too, but instead in 2010, at 21, he became Pho Le’s official owner. “I didn’t want my parents’ legacy to die,” he told me. “I pay my dad now, which is weird.” I asked if Dad’s a good employee. “Better than me,” confesses Jimmy. “He only goes home to sleep.”
And then, I take another sip.