A bowl of pho bo requires just two components: broth and noodles. The litany of meaty topping options is intended to lend flavor and texture without confusing things. Most are simply simmered along with the broth to the desired doneness, but a few, like tripe and bo vien (meatballs), require some special preparation.
For a bonus one-pot pho adventure, give the wine-soaked bo sot vang a whirl; it’s ready in half the time of regular pho bo.
Rare Beef (Bo Tai)
Tender, thin slices with clean beef flavor
What’s the cut? Tenderloin, eye of round, or ribeye.
How much for 8 servings? 11⁄2 lbs
Prep: Asian grocery stores will often have a selection of pre-packaged, thinly sliced beef ready for hot pot—use that, or call a butcher a day or so ahead and request paper- thin slices of your chosen cut. (If they don’t know what you mean, ask them to freeze the meat solid, then shave it on their meat slicer.) If you must slice your own meat, freeze it until it has crisp edges and doesn’t bounce back when prodded, about 30 minutes. Use a thin, sharp knife to cut the thinnest possible slices, no thicker than 1⁄8 inch. If your knife skills suck, lay the slices flat between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound them thin with the broad side of a chef’s knife or cleaver.
To Cook: Shingle several slices atop pho noodles, then ladle boiling-hot broth over the raw beef, cooking it on contact to a pretty pink.
Storage/Reheating: You can slice the beef a couple hours before serving. Lay the slices on a plate and press plastic wrap against the surface of the meat to avoid oxidization. Chill until ready to serve. Remove from the fridge right before topping your noodles.
Beefy flavor and textural intrigue
What’s the cut? The equivalent of the cow’s Achilles—a thick, strong tendon running down the back of the shank.
How much for 8 servings? 1⁄2–1 lb
Prep: Buy it in chunks at a butcher or Asian grocery store, or use a very sharp knife to cut a whole piece crosswise into 5 or 6 smaller pieces before cooking.
To Cook: Add the tendon to the simmering pho broth and simmer for at least 3 hours, until very tender. When the tendon is tender, remove it from the broth and plunge into an ice bath. Let sit until completely cool, about 10 minutes. Once the tendon’s cool, slice it against the grain into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
Storage/Reheating: The tendon can be simmered, chilled, and sliced 1–2 days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. Rewarm in hot broth before serving over noodles.
Flank Steak (Nam)
Good flavor, and often cheaper than brisket
What’s the cut? Sometimes paired with ve don (“crunchy flank”) on pho menus, flank steak comes from the underside of the cow near the hind legs, and is a tough, striated cut full of beefy flavor.
How much for 8 servings? 2–3 lbs
Prep: Keep the meat in one large piece, or cut in half with the grain if necessary to fit in the pot.
To Cook: Most beef pho recipes call for blanching the bones during the first stage of broth-building. Blanch the flank steak along with the bones, then drain and return to the pot with the cleaned bones. Simmer until tender but not falling apart, about 45 minutes. Remove the cooked flank from the broth and plunge into an ice bath. Let sit until completely cool, about 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Storage/Reheating: Flank steak can be simmered and shocked a couple hours ahead of serving time, then sliced when it’s time to eat. Drape thin slices of flank over the pho noodles and douse with hot broth.
Oxtail (Duoi Bo)
The bones and cartilage enrich the broth while the meat becomes bouncy-tender
What’s the cut? The tail, duh. It’s sold in 1–2-inch rounds, beautiful starbursts of bone, muscle, and cartilage.
How much for 8 servings? 8 pieces, 2–3 lbs
Prep: Rinse the oxtail pieces under cold water to remove any bone fragments left from the saw.
To Cook: Most beef pho recipes call for blanching the bones during the first stage of broth-building. Blanch the oxtail along with the bones, then drain and return to the pot with the cleaned bones. Simmer until tender but not falling apart, 21⁄2–3 hours. If you’re using oxtail as the primary bones for the broth, remove the quantity you want to eat when they’re bouncy-tender, then continue simmering the remaining bones.
Storage/Reheating: Oxtail can be simmered and stored a day or two ahead of time. Reheat it for a few minutes in the hot broth, set over the noodles, and cover with broth.
Fatty brisket flavors and enriches the broth
What’s the cut? Brisket comes from the chest of the cow and has alternat- ing layers of meat and fat. Try to find a piece from the “point” or “deckle”—the fat-tier side of the muscle—not the leaner “flat.”
How much for 8 servings? 3 lbs
Prep: Leave the brisket in 1 or 2 large pieces that fit in the pot. The day before cooking, season the brisket with 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat and rest, uncovered, in the fridge overnight.
To Cook: Most beef pho recipes call for blanching the bones during the first stage of broth-building. Blanch the brisket along with the bones, then drain and return to the pot with the cleaned bones. Simmer for 2–2 1⁄2 hours as part of the broth. The fat will glisten and jiggle, and the meat should be fork-tender but not falling apart. Remove the cooked brisket from the broth and plunge into an ice bath. This will stop the meat from cooking and prevent it from turning brown. Let sit until completely cool, about 20 minutes. Cut the chilled brisket against the grain into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices.
Storage/Reheating: Brisket can be simmered and shocked a couple hours ahead of serving time, then sliced when it’s time to eat. Arrange the brisket slices over the pho noodles and top with hot broth.
Meatballs (Bo Vien)
Garlicky gray orbs with contrasting crunchy and soft textures
What’s the cut? Made from shank and dotted with cartilage or tendon. Stay away from questionable store-bought ones and make your own.
How much for 8 servings? 1 lb (1 large meatball per serving)
Prep: Combine boneless beef shank with herbs and other ingredients in a food processor. Freeze the mix for 30 minutes, add tendon, and process again.
To Cook: Poach the meatballs in a pot of simmering salted water until they are cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Storage/Reheating: If you want to make the meatballs ahead of time, simmer them until cooked, and then drain and chill them for up to a day or two. Cut the meatballs in half or in slices and reheat for a few minutes in the hot broth. Serve several pieces in each bowl.
Not a ton of flavor, but a nice textural addition to the party
What’s the cut? Book tripe (not the more readily available honeycomb tripe); it looks as if it’s dotted with raised bumps like a braille book.
How much for 8 servings? 1–2 lbs
Prep: Tripe is blanched before it leaves the slaughterhouse; it is also usually bleached, a process that can impart a chemical odor. Rinse the tripe well and cut it into pieces small enough to fit comfortably in a large saucepan. Add enough cold water to cover, and add a splash of vinegar and a large pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse. If the odor persists, repeat until the tripe smells “fresh,” maybe 2–3 times total. Plunge into an ice bath.
To Cook: Some folks like their tripe simmered for a mere 5 minutes, making it just tender enough to cut through, while others prefer it bouncy-tender, which takes around 1 hour. Tripe can become overcooked and mushy suddenly, so use a paring knife to check the texture every 10 minutes or so. When the tripe is cooked to your desired texture, remove from the braising water and plunge into an ice bath. Let stand for about 10 minutes, until completely cooled. Pat dry, then slice the tripe (across the “sheets,” joined by a solid edge) into noodle-sized strips, about 1⁄8-inch thick and 3 inches long. Chill until ready to serve.
Storage/Reheating: Tripe can be made 1–2 days ahead of time without any noticeable drop-off in quality; freezing it is fine, too. Arrange a few slices of tripe over pho noodles, then cover with hot broth.
Red Wine–Braised Shank (Bo Sot Vang)
Rich, tender chunks of beef taste like mulled wine, in a good way
What’s the cut? Shank, braised in red-wine broth, and served with carrots. A not-so-distant cousin of boeuf bourguignon and a one-pot dish that doesn’t require bones to make the broth.
How much for 8 servings? 4 lbs boneless beef shank
Prep: Cut the meat into 1-inch pieces and marinate it overnight in a mixture of red wine and spices.
To Cook: Cook for 1 1/2 hours with marinade, herbs, and onions, skimming any scum that surfaces during the first ten minutes of cooking. Stir every 30 minutes thereafter. Add carrots and continue simmering until tender, about 15–20 minutes.
Storage/Reheating: This dish only gets better the longer it sits. Let sit for an hour once the meat is tender, or chill and reheat in a saucepan the next day. Some recipes call for a shot of red wine to be stirred into the pot at the end. Return to a simmer and ladle over pho noodles.
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