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Tonight a bowl of pho saved my life tonight.
During a particularly harrowing stretch of my extremely charmed life, I was living in a duplex across the street from my work and an ice storm crippled the city and my heater broke and I was in a dark place, both literally and figuratively.
And the thing about being cold, really cold, is that it feels like you’ll never be warm again. It feels like happiness is gone and won’t ever come back. (Note: Yes, I am in therapy, thank you for asking!) While thoughts of self-harm never entered the picture, I did have one of those seasons when I basically refused to leave my bed for anything but work.
In the midst of my personal low point, I returned to Pho Cuong, a lovely little Vietnamese restaurant in an old green house. I ordered a bowl of my go-to pho--pho tai gau, with rare steak (tai) and fatty brisket (gau)--and shivered and held back the tears that felt like they were frozen in my eyes and I breathed deeply the scent of that exquisite broth.
Does that ever happen to you, when things are so dark and dreary and sad that a pinprick of light unleashes a torrent of emotions? The billowing steam from my large bowl of pho unlocked something I had tried so hard to force down and I sat there and sniffled and cried and was thankful that so many other people were also sniffling and tearing up from their too-spicy pho that I didn’t feel like anyone could see me.
The warmth returned to me that night and when I came home to my cold little duplex, I stayed bundled up and crawled into bed and felt a little less hopeless. And sometimes that shift is all you need. Sometimes that hiccup of happiness is such a stark contrast to the bleak flat plane of existence that it reminds you that this feeling isn’t forever and the sun will come back one of these days.
I know you come here for restaurant reviews and not for me to work out my issues in a safe space, but I can’t help thinking of this when I visit Pho Cuong and I hope they know, I hope all of you know, that the things you do for people in your lives really makes a difference.
Enough of that emotionally fraught crap that I’m worried about publishing: let’s talk about the food.
Pho Cuong is, as the name might lead you to believe, primarily focused on pho. It’s a broth-based Vietnamese noodle soup, usually made with beef. The noodles and meat are filling, but the real draw is the deeply spiced liquid, made from charred bones and vegetables cooked down and down and down into a dark brown broth. The broth is the thing. Without it, pho would be blo (pronounced “bluh”).
My usual order, as previously mentioned, is pho tai gau. You get a ton of noodles in a big bowl of steaming broth with thinly sliced onions and pieces of fatty brisket and rare steak sitting on top. But I turned to resident Pho Cuong fan and Nonesuch chef Colin Stringer for some “must-have” dishes. He did not disappoint.
First up, on the pho, my friends and I tried the Pho Tai Nam Gau Gan Sach (aka the #15) with fatty brisket, rare steak, flank, tendon and tripe. If you like a variety of textures, which is the way to go. Some of the meat is supple and other pieces are chewy—it’s a cornucopia of feelings. But the base of the pho remains unchanged: a lovely broth singing with spices. I usually dress mine with torn basil leaves, bean sprouts and fresh sliced jalapenos, but some people swear that it’s not pho without sriracha. I leave it to you to decide.
For a different take on pho, I recently tried the Pho Thit Nuong ($6.99 small-$8.99 extra large) It’s the same broth and noodles you love, but the beef is replaced with grilled pork slices. Folks, I am a fan. The pork seemed to be more seasoned and lacquered with flavor than the beef, which made me hesitate before adding much in the way of accoutrements to the bowl.
Speaking of pork, Vietnamese food is a big, big, big believer in the finery of swinery. Despite pho being a primarily beef-related dish, the entire menu at Pho Cuong has a ton of great pork dishes.
On appetizers alone, you can choose Cha Gio, Bi Cuon or Goi Cuon (all are one for $1.49, two for $2.99).
Cha Gio are your traditional fried egg rolls with ground pork and vegetables and I love them. Look, egg rolls are, by and large, pretty delicious. Pho Cuong’s egg rolls, however, are a cut above. Super light and crispy wrapper with that great oily, seasoned interior that takes you back to your first memory of egg rolls, when you were young and you could still love things.
Bi Cuon and Goi Cuon are fresh spring rolls wrapped in sticky rice paper. I found the Bi Cuon, which is shredded pork skin, vermicelli, lettuce and bean sprouts a little chewier than I like, but the Goi Cuon—ham, shrimp, vermicelli, lettuce and bean sprouts in rice paper—were excellent with the accompanying peanut sauce. Without peanut sauce? Ehn. A little bland.
We thought the Mi Suon ($8.79) was a little bland at first, too, but it’s a dish that requires a little patience for a big reward. BTW, this one isn’t even on the menu. They just have it printed on a piece of paper up by the register, but go ahead and ask for the “M10” to get it. You get a giant bowl of braised pork ribs with egg noodles and a side bowl of broth. The color of the dish will fool your brain into thinking it’s about to be hit by a load of chili spice, but it’s not like that.
There’s heat, certainly, but it’s a slow build. The pork is tender and savory and delightful and the sauce on the noodles seems to be activated by the bowl of beef broth. Slurp down some noodles and a piece of pork (watch out for the bone) and you’ll feel a rising tingle in the back of your throat that spreads steadily through your body until you are radiating happiness. Or it just tastes good. I dunno.
Do you like a lot of meat? I do. And Bun Cha Ha Noi ($9.49) is kind of ridiculously stacked with protein. The bowl is full of tender vermicelli noodles and veggies tossed in a chilled sauce that’s mildly sweet and completely lovely. On the side, you have a bowl filled with Hanoi-style pork-and-shrimp patty, grilled shrimp and grilled pork. Dump it all in and mix it up or pick and choose—whatever you do, you’re going to love it.
The pork/shrimp patty (or “pimp,” as I will now forever call it) is a new one to me, but I will never go back. It’s texture is like sausage, but the flavor is grilled fatty gloriousness. It’s a dish that tiptoes on the line between sweet and savory and I’ll bet it’s as wonderful in the depths of summer as it was on an unseasonably chilly day in February.
Bun Bo Hue ($8.79), which the Bui sisters tried and failed to teach me to correctly pronounce, is a spicy beef noodle soup that takes a hard left turn into the porcine neighborhood with pieces of pork and beef shanks, Vietnamese ham and slices of solidified pork blood.
The broth is amazing, but if I had my druthers, I’d likely switch up a few things. I thought the larger noodles they used were too gooey, for one, and the inclusion of pork blood (or any solid blood product) was not my favorite. It wasn’t as mineral-y as I was expecting when I ate a piece, but it still didn’t hold any real value to me. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
One dish I think everyone should get is the Com Bo Dai Han ($9.49), which is a rare non-soup item at Pho Cuong. These grilled short ribs are super tender and extremely flavorful, thanks to a marinade of lemongrass and chili peppers that I’m tempted to begin using as a cologne. With rice, broth and some raw veggies, it’s a wonderful meal that I kept returning to again and again, despite a table filled with other tasty delights.
Oklahoma City has a plethora of excellent Vietnamese restaurants and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who spends time at Pho Lien Hoa or Pho Thai Nguyen or Pho Ca Dao or any of the other top-notch options around town. But Pho Cuong deserves to be on your itinerary. I know I’ll be back soon, because every time I look at these pictures, I find myself fantasizing about taking down another bowl of that magic broth.
The Oklahoma Pork Council represents the interests all of pork producers throughout the state, promoting pork and pork products, funding research and educating consumers and producers about the pork industry. Learn more about the OPC, find recipes and more at OKPork.org.