There's not yet a study to back it up, but I'm convinced there's a strong correlation between cold, rainy weather and cravings for phở.
There's just something about the traditional Vietnamese soup on cold days, much like those we're experiencing now -- the nourishing, aromatic broth; the comfort of a warm noodle-soup; the reassuring familiarity of something simple and consistent yet incredibly satisfying. It's a medically unproven cure for many ailments (common cold, hunger, hangover, loneliness, etc.).
Phở (pronounced "fuh") starts with a base of broth, made over several hours from bones of meat -- typically beef, but sometimes chicken -- that is then served with different cuts and types of meat; long, thin white-rice noodles; spices and herbs. Cuts of meat added after the broth typically include steak, brisket, tripe, tendon, meatballs, oxtail and chicken as well as seafood and, at some restaurants, vegetarian options.
The soup comes with toppings like sliced white onion, green onion and cilantro. Traditional phở garnishes, always served on the side for the diner to customize to his or her liking, include bean sprouts, sprigs of basil, jalapeño slices and lime wedges. Garnishes wield the most flavor impact when ripped up and sprinkled throughout, rather than added in whole. Bowls can be jazzed up further with condiments such as fish sauce, Siracha and hoisin, bottles and jars of which can typically be found at every Vietnamese restaurant table. (Phở purists warn against over-saucing; instead, dip just your protein in a side dish of your preferred sauce(s), then mix in your own mouth with noodles and both.)
In Vietnam, phở is a staple meal at any time of the day -- breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The MidPeninsula, located in the phở-desert that is most cities north of San Jose (home to the largest Vietnamese population in the nation), is admittedly not well known for phở. But a closer look at the Vietnamese restaurants in the area turns up some competitive options well worth staying on the Peninsula for.
Best in town: Hometown Noodle, Redwood City
Redwood City is best known for its taquerias, but it's actually home to a handful of Vietnamese restaurants. Top of your list should be Hometown Noodle, a hidden gem sandwiched between a beauty salon and shoe store on Middlefield Road. It doesn't look like much from the outside (ignore the bars on the windows and giant photos of food), but its kitchen is turning out some of the best phở on the MidPeninsula. Owner Jenny Ha Nguyen said they cook their broth from beef bones over 10 hours with ginger and yellow onion, controlling the temperature carefully to ensure a consistent product. When it's ready to be served, the cooks drain all the liquid and add to a separate bowl with the noodles and already-cooked meat. For an authentic Vietnamese experience, ask for a side order of soup fat -- the leftovers from what is drained before serving. (Nguyen said in more than a decade of business at Hometown, no non-Vietnamese customer has ever asked for soup fat.) The phở tái chin with flank steak and slices of brisket is aromatic and flavorful. Other local restaurants' phở ga (pronounced "yeah"), or chicken phở, pale in comparison to Hometown's, which comes packed with juicy, shredded chicken breast. (Maybe it's so good because it's still made with the same beef-bone broth; Nguyen said they ditched a chicken-only broth some years ago after customers started asking for the beef broth.) Bowls come in three sizes: small ($7.95), medium ($8.95) and large ($9.95). The small is enough for a satisfying lunch. Like most phở joints, service at Hometown is quick with no frills. There are numerous meat combinations, and Nguyen said it's not quite create-your-own-bowl, but customers can always ask for whatever mix of proteins they prefer.
3151 Middlefield Road, Redwood City; hometownnoodle.com. Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Bargain meal: Phở to Chau, Mountain View
Get your pho fill at lunch at Phở to Chau in downtown Mountain View. The restaurant, clean, quiet and friendly, is located on Villa Street, about a block removed from the weekday dining-hour hubbub of Castro Street. Phở to Chau recently changed ownership and, diners say its soup improved significantly. There are more than 20 meat combinations on the menu, from just rare steak (served on the side and dropped into the hot soup by the diner to cook) to brisket and meatballs. There are also seafood options (shrimp, tilapia, calamari, salmon). Phở to Chau's phở ga comes with thin and pliant noodles and quality broth, but the sliced (rather than shredded) white chicken meat was less moist and fresh. If you're feeling adventurous, opt for the tái gan, which comes with thick, flavorful chunks of beef tendon and paper-thin slices of brisket. Pro tip: Can't stay for lunch? Phở to Chau's bowls also travel well via takeout containers. Just make sure you have your own Siracha on hand at home. A small goes for $6.70 (and is plenty for a full meal, though not available for takeout), medium for $8.95 and large for $9.95. Each size has the same amount of meat, according to the menu.
853 Villa St., Mountain View; photochau.net. Open Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight.
Crowd favorite: Phở Vi Hoa, Los Altos
This longtime Vietnamese restaurant on El Camino Real attracts big crowds, and despite the massive dining room, there's usually a line out the door for weekday lunch. Show up before noon to snag a spot, or else face waiting for a table. Phở Vi Hoa is one of several business at the Village Court shopping center in Los Altos; if you find yourself waiting, head into Teaspoon for a refreshing milk tea or peruse the meat options at Dittmer's Gourmet Meat & Wurst-Haus. The phở tái chin with an eye of round steak and lean brisket has rich, deep flavors; the phở ga doesn't disappoint either, with heaping portions of al-dente noodles and shredded chicken. Phở Via Hoa also distinguished itself by serving the traditional garnish suitable for chicken phở: cilantro. Their soup, however, left me feeling dehydrated for several hours -- a little bit like my veins were running with sodium rather than blood. My dining companion and Vietnamese-American coworker wondered whether the size of the restaurant, much larger than many others in the area, means compromised quality (and too much salt) when it comes to the broth. Phở Via Hoa offers two sizes of bowls, small ($9.50) and large ($10.50).
4546 El Camino Real A12, Los Altos; phovihoa.com. Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Upscale bowl: Tamarine, Palo Alto
Those seeking a higher-end bowl of phở with a full-service dining experience should opt for Tamarine in downtown Palo Alto. Tamarine's phở is made from a ginger-beef broth, served with noodles and slices of Kobe beef blanched with star anise and cinnamon ($15). For a less-traditional take, minus the broth, there's also the wok-flashed rice noodles tossed with Chinese broccoli, flank steak, eggs and soy sauce ($17).
546 University Ave., Palo Alto; tamarinerestaurant.com. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. and Sunday, 5-9 p.m.