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It’s in the Broth

by B.A. Nilsson on January 12, 2012

Phơ Yum, 1558 Central Ave., Albany, 869-9866, pho-yum.com. Serving 11-9:30 Tue-Thu, 11-10 Fri-Sat, 11-9 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Entrée price range: $6.25 (bánh mì, a sandwich) to $10 (phơ with three meats)

Ambiance: spartan

Some form of noodle soup has become a culinary staple throughout Asia. In China, the varieties seem endless. The movie Tampopo illustrates Japan’s fascination with the dish. In Korea you’ll find a chilled version called makguksu, while mohinga is practically the signature entrée of Myanmar. I can’t get enough of Thailand’s curried khao soi, which seems to have endless variety, but I’ve also found a special magic in pho’, Vietnam’s noodle soup.

In Philadelphia, you’ll find more Vietnamese restaurants in Wing Phat Plaza than exist in most major cities, and to sample phơ from several of them is to savor the flexibility of the recipe. Now we have our own phơ-specialty restaurant in Albany, and the culinary outlook is much improved.

For a dish that’s but a century old, it has a murky history. It originated around Hanoi and shows the influence of China and France. It began as a broth with noodles and poached beef but evolved into a complicated stock with a choice of accompanying meat as well as a number of served-on-the-side garnishes.

Photograph by B.A. Nilsson

Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, noted in a piece for the San José Mercury News that the origin of pho “is a murky issue. While scholars, cooks and diners agree that pho was invented in the early part of the 20th century in northern Vietnam, no one is certain of the specifics.” Even a series of Hanoi-based seminars in 2003 was unable to unravel even the mystery of the name. “Some proposed that ‘pho’ was a Vietnamese corruption of the French ‘feu’ (fire), as in the classic boiled dinner pot-au-feu, which the French colonialists introduced to Vietnam.”

The mother-and-daughter team of Anh and Linh Diep have operated the restaurant My Linh in Albany for nearly 20 years, the past 11 of them on Delaware Avenue. Phơ Yum is an offshoot of that. “For many years, we have been hearing our customers asking for different kinds of phơ ,” says Linh. “That’s why we opened Phơ Yum. It has a smaller menu with lower prices.”

In effect, there are four items on the menu: phơ, bánh mì, bún vermicelli and summer rolls. But each is available severally.

The phơ section presents nine varieties. At the heart is the unvarnished phơ ($6.75), a beef broth with rice noodles. It comes with an accompanying plate of hoisin and sriracha sauces, bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, Asian basil and a wedge of lime. The soup itself is generously decorated with scallions and onions.

But it’s much too tempting to add more. Add $1.25 for any of the five beef-enhanced varieties: eye round, brisket, tripe, meatballs or tendons. I’ve visited three times, and had the brisket once and the meatballs once. The brisket is cooked to a uniform doneness (some places offer it rare, to cook in the broth), but it was no cause for complaint. The meatballs are plump, chewy and very tasty. Incredibly satisfying as those soups were, I’ve pledged to sample my way around the rest of the items, tripe included. In fact, next visit I’ll take advantage of the option to mix it up by adding any three of the meats for an extra $3.25.

Chicken is also available as a $1.25 add-on, and shrimp is an extra $1.75. The vegetarian version ($8.25) is phơ with meatless stock and additional snow peas and broccoli.

Having the add-ons on the side gives a satisfying sense of participation. I’ve already fallen into a pattern of adding nothing at first, then easing the elements in until they’re all submerged, the two sauces included.

Bánh mì refers to a type of roll that’s here prepared in-house, and it’s the basis for a sandwich that at its simplest ($5.25) includes cucumber, pickled carrots and radishes, cilantro and scallions. Add a dollar for the extras, which can include Vietnamese ham with a house-made pâté, grilled pork sausage, sliced beef, chicken, tofu and more.

Bún vermicelli are rice noodles, here served atop lettuce with cucumber, sprouts and seasonings and topped with chopped peanuts ($6.75). Grilled beef, pork or chicken is available for an extra $1.25, with a side of garlicky, lime-based nuoc mam sauce; grilled shrimp adds $1.75, while the vegetarian versions add shredded tofu and bi chay—gluten made from roasted rice powder (add $1.25) or tofu and snow peas and broccoli (add $1.50).

We tried the version with grilled pork sausage (add $1.25), which puts long strips of the pinkish meat across the top of a large bowl of the noodles and greens. The mix of flavors and temperatures was astonishing; the accompanying sauce, tuong ngot, which features hoisin and pineapple juice, allowed us to add varying amounts of complementary sweetness.

While you’re not required to start things off with summer rolls ($5.50), you would suffer the loss of such a fresh, bright-tasting compote, the translucent rice paper bulging with noodles and lettuce and a big burst of mint. Add a dollar for additions like beef, chicken, pork sausage, shrimp and more.

Let’s note here that the restaurant itself, in a strip mall on Central Avenue, not far from Wolf Road, is as unassuming as they come. The door opens directly (with an Arctic blast this time of year) onto a room with a dozen or so glass-topped tables. Such decor as there is consists of attractive artwork on the wall. Service was quick and attentive on each of my visits. So I’m more than happy to forgive the casualness of the place, if that even needs forgiving. The food, the price, the accessibility—all of it adds up to make this a regular stop on my restaurant rounds.