Introduction: Pho-nominal House Special Pho!

I first tried pho a few years ago at a local Vietnamese restaurant and thought it had the best broth I had ever tasted. I was determined to see if I could make it at home. I tried several different recipes on the net, but no single one of them had the flavor I was looking for. I had mentioned it one time to one of the staff at the restaurant, and was told 'There is no way this flavor can be gotten at home'. Well, the gauntlet had obviously been thrown and I was more than stubborn enough to take up the challenge! After many hours in the kitchen, scouring the internet for tips,  and taste tests by family and friends, the end result is just as tasty (if not more so) than what was served at the restaurant.

The main recipe is for the tripe and meatball version (hence the house special title). However, I also give alternate directions in the steps for a regular beef version. The basic process and core ingredients are the same. The broth is also extremely tasty on it's own and can be used for other recipes as well. This makes a lot, so there may be lots of leftovers to figure out what to do with.

There are recipes out there that use pre-made spice mixes and pre-made broth. If you are looking for a quick recipe, this is probably not the Instructable for you. I prefer to have the freedom to add the amount of spices I like best and making the extremely tasty broth from scratch is most of the point for me. I document things I've tried during this process that have (and have not) worked very well.

The spices here have applications in many other types of food, so if you don't have them on hand, don't panic that you'll be buying them and only using them once. I've gotten some of mine in bulk from the local Indian and Asian markets. They are a fraction of the cost to get them there than in the little jars at the grocery store. I put the excess in ziplock bags and store them in the freezer so they don't lose their potency.

Step 1: Ingredients

Do not let the ingredient list intimidate you! This can be a bit daunting the first time you make it, since there are a lot of prep steps involved...and then waiting. But the end result is definitely worth it.


4-6 lb beef roast (I usually get whatever is on sale at the grocery store)
3 onions, yellow or white cut in half lengthwise
1 medium sized ginger root, cut in half lengthwise
1 lb beef bones - I used 2 lbs here, but it was a bit too much. I have gotten these fairly cheap in my local Asian market and also in the frozen meat section in my grocery store (near where the quail, liver and other similar meats are)
2/3 c fish sauce - This is not optional!
4 tbsp Salt
2 oz palm sugar (white sugar will work also)

For normal beef pho
-- very thin sliced flank steak, maybe 1/2 to 1 lb

For my alternate tripe version (all of these items came from my local asian market, but some can be purchased at a regular grocery store):
  • 1 package beef omasum (beef tripe) - Omasum is preferred over the honeycomb type. It tastes cleaner and gets more tender when cooked.
  • 1 package precooked beef meatballs - NOT the frozen kind used for spaghetti!
  • 1 package precooked beef and tendon meatballs (I'd never tried these before, but figured it couldn't hurt to try them)
  • 2 packages precooked shredded pork skin, chopped up - unless you want to sub these for noodles
  • cheesecloth

2 cinnamon sticks
4 black cardamom pods (if you only have ground, use 1/8 tsp. Do NOT try and toast the ground with the rest of the spices. I will give instructions on when to add it if that is all you have)
3 Tbsp whole coriander seed (ground will not work well for this)
1 Tbsp fennel seed
15 whole cloves
8 star anise
3 bay leaves
5 black peppercorns

Final noodle bowl assembly items:
1 package rice noodes
bunch cilantro
bean sprouts
sriracha (hot sauce)
lime wedges

Really big stock/soup pot

Step 2: Prep the Bones

In all the recipes I've found, nearly all of them recommend boiling the bones ahead of time to get rid of the scummy stuff that will keep the broth from being nice and clear. The times have varied, so I'm putting what worked best for me.

  • Take a big pot and fill 1/2 to 3/4 full of water
  • Bring to a boil
  • Add the bones
  • Let boil a bit

If your bones are cut in halves lengthwise, only boil for 5 minutes or you will lose the marrow
Otherwise boil for 10 minutes
  • Dump carefully into a colander and rinse
  • Place into bottom of stock pot

Step 3: Ginger and Onion Prep

Next, we want to broil the ginger and onion. In all the recipes I attempted, I found this was the critical missing step! So it is important this is done to achieve the yummiest flavor.

  • Turn the broiler on in your oven
  • Cut your ginger and onions in half lengthwise (if it isn't already)
  • Apply some vegetable oil to the cut side of both the ginger and the onion
  • Place on a cookie sheet
  • Broil until slightly charred
  • Turn over
  • Broil another 5 minutes
  • Remove from oven and set aside

Note: If you freeze your ginger, it may not char! It took me a while to figure out why my ginger would never get brown in the oven. I normally keep mine in the freezer, so it when I attempted to broil it, it was just steaming.

Step 4: Prep the Tripe (Optional If Doing the Normal Version)

If you are not doing the tripe version, you can skip this step and head on to step 5...

If I didn't mention it before, be sure and get the tripe that is called omasum. It has a slightly bumpy texture. It is NOT the honeycomb kind. Omasum has a much better flavor and texture.

  • Cook tripe for about 10 minutes in boiling water (I did this the same time I boiled the bones, just in a different pot)
  • Rinse well under cold water
  • Cut up into bite sized chunks
  • Cut a large piece of cheesecloth
  • Put the cut up tripe in the cheesecloth. Be sure and leave lots of room for broth circulation
There is a reason why we are wrapping the tripe up in cheesecloth rather than the spices. I will get to that in the next section...

Step 5: Toast the Spices

Nearly done with all the prep work! Now for the smell-good part! I wish the internet had smell-o-vision for this step.

  • In a pan over medium heat, toast all the spices:
  • Cardamom pods, bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon sticks, fennel seed, coriander seed, black peppercorns, star anise
  • Let them heat up until they start giving off their wonderful aromas
  • Shake pan occasionally - you don't want this to burn!
  • If the coriander seeds start popping, it's past time to remove from heat!
Note: A lot of recipes have you put the spices into a cheesecloth or metal strainer. I have tried it several ways, and leaving the spices free-floating seems to impart more flavor. We will be straining everything at the end.

If you don't feel like doing the straining, you can wrap them all up in something first, but note that it might mute the flavors a bit.

Step 6: Put Everything in the Pot

Here is where things all start to come together. It is pretty much a "put everything in the pot" step.
  • First, I put the bones we boiled earlier in the bottom of the soup pot
  • I put the roast on top of this (this will help keep it from burning if one side stays touching the bottom of the pan.)
  • I left the string around the roast to make it easier to remove later on. This is the first roast I've purchased that had that, and it works great!
  • Add enough water to fill the pot and leave about 3 inches from the top (for the pot I used, I added 9 quarts of water)
  • Add the onion, ginger and spices
  • Add the sugar, salt and fish sauce
  • Let simmer for two and a half hours
  • If doing the tripe version, add the tripe
  • Simmer for another hour (both versions)

The time on this is not exact. I normally keep cooking until the roast wants to fall apart after poking it with a fork. Standard total time for me is around 4 hours cook time total.

Step 7: Rest Time Is Over

Okay...hopefully you got to put your feet up a few hours while this was cooking. The next step is more challenging, especially for one person to do alone.
  • Remove the roast and set aside*
  • Remove the bag of tripe (if you added it earlier) and set aside
  • Get your strainer and start scooping out the big bits
  • You should have chunks of onion, ginger and several bones in there
  • Scoop out as many of the spice chunks as you can
  • This can all be discarded
  • To strain the remaining, CAREFULLY pour the contents of the stock pot through a strainer into a big container to hold temporarily. This is MUCH easier with two people.
  • Discard the chunks in the strainer
  • Return what should be your nice clear broth to your stock pot. Use extreme caution when doing this. This broth is still hot! I was un-careful when doing this step and scalded my hand. Hence why there isn't a photo for a couple of parts.
If you are making the tripe version:
  • Remove the tripe from the cheesecloth and rinse under cool water to remove any small debris
  • Add back to the pot ^
  • Add the meatballs to the broth so they can heat up ^
  • Shredded pig skin to the broth to warm it up a bit ^
Note: ^ I have thought about this and think that next time I will only add the meatballs, and then only to warm them up. I think the warmed up meatballs,  tripe and the skin can be added to the bowls directly and just have the broth poured on top like other pho. That way if someone wants plain broth, or the broth with beef, they can have it that way.

* The roast can be used as meat in the pho. Several recipes say to discard it (!?!) but as I think there is something fundamentally wrong with that, I normally use the roast to make tamales with. Surprisingly the pho spices mixed with the Mexican ones really work well together. Instructable for my home made tamales to come soon.

Step 8: Assembling the Bowls

  • Soak the rice noodles in hot water (for the thin ones, this only takes a couple of minutes)
  • While the noodles are soaking, you can start the prep of the condiments.
  • Chop the green onion into small slices
  • Chop the cilantro
  • Cut the limes into wedges, if you haven't already
  • Put some noodles into a bowl
  • If making the beef version, add the thin sliced raw beef
  • If making the tripe version, and keeping those bits separate, add them to the bowl now
  • Pour the broth over the meat bits (the heat should cook the beef slices)
  • Add the cilantro, onion, lime and bean sprouts to taste
Enjoy all your hard work!

I've found that this almost tastes better if refrigerated overnight. It will also let you skim off any excess fat that floats to the top after it is cooled. If you go to your fridge the next day and find that you have a pot of pho jello, don't panic. It will turn liquid again once it is warmed up. Just be careful when scooping the  fat layer off the jello-pho. It is easy to take chunks out.

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