There are one-pot meals and there is pho.
Pho, pronounced like “duh,” is the unofficial national soup/stew of Vietnam, north and south.
There it is popular street food. When the Vietnam war ended, pho crossed the Pacific with the wave of refugees that entered the U.S. and Canada.
The thing that makes pho savory beyond description is the broth. You start with beef bones that are roasted until slightly charred. Those go into a pot with water, onion, ginger and an aromatic spice blend that can include Saigon cinnamon, star anise, toasted ginger, roasted onion, cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed and cloves.
This mixture is simmered up to eight hours.
When ready to serve, the broth is augmented with thinly sliced raw beef, rice vermicelli noodles, green onion and a splash of fresh lime juice, with daikon sprouts, Thai basil and cilantro for garnish.
The beef could be both brisket – cooked – and ribeye – raw but which cooks in the hot broth.
Optional are hot peppers and the diner’s choice of such condiments as sriracha and hoisin sauce et cetera.
Tony Vu teased visitors to the Flint Farmers Market last fall by serving pho curbside from a truck. He then vanished to visit relatives in Texas until turning up inside the market this summer.
He is doing big business at a stand on a hallway leading to the east entrance, across from the Art at the Market Gallery.
On one of Ma Mang’s first days, 32 bowls of pho had been sold by 1 p.m. Typically, customers slurp it sitting at the counter while eager folks stand by waiting for theirs.
A bowl including just brisket costs eight bucks. With ribeye, it’s $9. Vu’s pho portions are generous, served in ample plastic bowls that make good food storage containers.
Vu and helpers brew 40 gallons of broth on Mondays in the market’s commercial kitchen, hoping it will carry them through the week. Some weeks, they have to get back in the kitchen Friday to meet Saturday demand.
As of this writing, the only other choice at Ma Mang is a sandwich served on a baguette and filled with duck or pork, julienned carrots, pickled daikon radish, diced jalapeno and cilantro, and a variation with a rice flour bun.
“I plan to add different vegetarian spring rolls, Vietnamese-style wontom ramen soup with pork belly and my family’s version of Bun Riu, a crab soup,” Vu says.
By the time you read this, he could be offering Thai bubble tea, Thai iced tea and Taiwanese shaved ice cream.
As good as these non-pho additions sound, he may have an impossible task to steer patrons away from the main attraction.
At present, he and assistant Brian LaForge have their hands full with pho assembly. Counter workers Zoe Gisewhite or Rachel Zhender track orders, which typically are lined up on slips the length of the counter.
Vu says he knew some of those who ordered from the truck last year would find him this summer, but the small legion of new customers took him by surprise.
“The first few weeks we were just trying to keep up and have enough food for everyone. We were selling out every day.”
I’m on record saying Ma Mang needs a larger space at the market to accommodate the public and have room for prep work. Or maybe the jam-up at the present location is as it should be.
The market at First and Stevens streets is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. You might be able to score a steaming bowl of pho by 10:30 a.m.
This recipe is not likely to produce pho as savory as that at Ma Mang, at least not the first time through.
- 5 pounds roasted beef marrow or knuckle bones
- 2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2 pieces
- 2 (3-in.) pieces ginger, cut in half lengthwise and lightly bruised with the flat side of a knife, lightly charred (see Note, below)
- 2 yellow onions, peeled and charred (see Note, below)
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 10 whole star anise, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 6 whole cloves, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 pound dried 1/16-inch-wide rice sticks, soaked, cooked and drained (see tips, below)
- 1/3 pound beef sirloin, slightly frozen, then sliced paper-thin across the grain
- 1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin
- 3 green onions, sliced
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 pound bean sprouts
- 10 sprigs Thai basil
- 6 Thai bird chilies or 1 serrano chili, cut into thin rings, optional
- 1 lime, cut into 6 thin wedges
- Freshly ground black pepper
In a large stockpot, bring 6 quarts water to a boil. Place the bones and beef chuck in a second pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil vigorously 5 minutes. Using tongs, carefully transfer the bones and beef to the first pot of boiling water. Discard the water in which the meat cooked. (This cleans the bones and meat and reduces the impurities that can cloud the broth.)
When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Skim the surface often to remove any foam and fat. Add the charred ginger and onions, fish sauce and sugar. Simmer until the beef chuck is tender, about 40 minutes. Remove one piece and submerge in cool water for 10 minutes to prevent the meat from darkening and drying out. Drain, then cut into thin slices and set aside. Let the other piece of beef chuck continue to cook in the simmering broth.
When the broth has been simmering for about 1 1/2 hours total, wrap the star anise and cloves in a piece of cheesecloth and add to the broth. Let infuse until the broth is fragrant, about 30 minutes. Remove and discard both the spice bag and onions. Add the salt and continue to simmer, skimming as necessary, until you're ready to assemble the dish. The broth needs to cook for at least 2 hours. (The broth will taste salty but will be balanced once the noodles and accompaniments are added.) Leave the remaining chuck and bones to simmer in the pot while you assemble the bowls.
To serve, place the cooked noodles in preheated bowls. (If the noodles are not hot, reheat them in a microwave or dip them briefly in boiling water to prevent them from cooling the soup.) Place a few slices of the beef chuck and the raw sirloin on the noodles. Bring the broth to a rolling boil and ladle 2 to 3 cups into each bowl. The broth will cook the raw beef instantly. Garnish with yellow onions, scallions and cilantro. Serve immediately, inviting guests to garnish the bowls with bean sprouts, herbs, chilies and black pepper.
How to char ginger and onions:
To char ginger, hold the piece with tongs directly over an open flame or place it directly on a medium-hot electric burner. While turning, char until the edges are slightly blackened and the ginger is fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Char the onions in the same way. Peel and discard the blackened skins of the ginger and onions, then rinse and add to the broth.