Ah, pho. So good, so warming, so cheap. But what happens when you take away the cheap?
Eric Banh of sophisticated modern Vietnamese spots Monsoon and Ba Bar, with graphic designer Geoffrey Smith, wrote a defense recently of the $10 bowl of Painted Hills beef pho and the $13 oxtail pho that Banh serves.
“Nobody ever says it’s not delicious. Nobody ever complains about our portion size or the richness of our broth. No, people only ever say one thing when they complain about the phở at Ba Bar or Monsoon:” read the post.
“Ten dollars?! For a bowl of phở? I can get this down the street for only five bucks! What a ripoff!”
Banh’s restaurants use more bones in their stock, simmer the broth for 24 hours through various stages, and use fresh, high-quality ingredients from the meat to the hoisin sauce, said the post. “There are stores here in Seattle (that will remain unnamed) where you can get beef for $1.99 a pound and oxtail for $3.50. That’s cheap! Why is it so cheap? Because it’s terrible. It’s tough, it’s sinewy, and it’s likely beef rendered from old dairy cows that no longer produce milk. Sad, old milk cows who find a final resting place in your bowl of five dollar phở. We’ve tried cooking with this beef before, and even after six hours on the stove, it’s still tough as leather.”
They wrote that there’s nothing wrong with getting a cheap, satisfying and “mostly good” bowl of $5 pho, but that restaurants can only offer it by compromising; there’s no way to make the labor-intensive dish with quality ingredients at that price unless you’re cutting corners somewhere.
That’s rather a slam on anyone serving $5 pho. At the same time, though, do most customers buying inexpensive meals expect top quality ingredients? Is there no middle ground? We don’t expect Painted Hills beef in a Dick’s burger, but they’re able to avoid pink slime.
An Eater commenter wrote about the $10 pho that we have a “crazy double standard” for ethnic food, where people won’t buy it if it’s not ultra-cheap. Burritos and banh mi are seldom seen the same way as burgers, where we can accept a range of quality and prices. Maybe with open conversations like Banh’s, we’ll move farther in that direction.
Does your pho need to be extra-cheap?