The best pho in Houston. That’s a minefield of a statement. After all, Houston’s thriving Vietnamese community means that there are at least 70 pho restaurants in town — and probably far more than the ones I could count in the phone book — which would seem to make choosing a favorite a difficult task. But it’s only difficult if you’ve never eaten at Pho Binh. In the face of its highly fragrant broth with a silky sheen of beef fat floating on top, all other pho becomes a distant and slightly disappointing memory. This is truly how pho should taste.
I’m not the first to write a love letter (or love video, even) to Pho Binh and I certainly won’t be the last. And I certainly can’t claim to have discovered the place. Pho Binh has been a staple of the South Houston dining scene for at least 20 years, according to my friend and area resident David Tong. He seemed shocked to hear that Houston foodies have discovered the little place — a ramshackle pairing of a single-wide trailer and a tumbledown house — and are currently singing its praises far and wide. He half-jokingly told me that people who find the place have a duty as secret-keepers to make sure it doesn’t become too popular. After all, they run out of pho every day as it is.
I had the pleasure of eating breakfast there last weekend with a collection of some of my favorite food lovers: Misha, Dorothy and David. David, who owns Tuscany Coffee, bragged of eating at Pho Binh at least five times a week when he was working in South Houston and therefore was our guide for the meal. He advised us to get the bo vien (meatballs) and extra fat with our pho. I went with both of those options as well as brisket and crispy fat for my soup. I thought of my former boss, Trang, and how she and her family would eat pho every morning for breakfast (pho is a traditional Vietnamese breakfast, lunch or dinner item — versatile!). If every morning started over a rich, invigorating, slightly spicy bowl of noodle soup with thick cuts of brisket and fat, I feel I’d be at least half as productive as she was. Or not. She had that whole half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese, crazy hardcore Asian work ethic going for her. And…I don’t.
The folks who run Pho Binh had just returned from their annual two month trip back to Vietnam. During that time each year, the restaurant is closed. As in, tough luck, go eat somewhere else, we have lives to live closed. I love that attitude, and wish it extended to American culture as well. As a result, the place was utterly packed with happy customers, joyful for the return of their beloved pho. We scored a rickety couple of tables in the single-wide portion of the restaurant, which is technically the storeroom/back half of the kitchen.
As I slurped my noodles and savored each drop of broth, surrounded by boxes of paper napkins and flats of aluminum cans, I thought how odd it was that one of the best meals of my life was being enjoyed in a poorly-lit trailer off Fuqua and I-45. But isn’t that all that we hope for in Houston? And isn’t that what we love about this city?