SAN FRANCISCO — When the sky is gray and the chilly fog rolls in off the bay, one thing is guaranteed to make you feel better: a big fat bowl of hot pho steaming in your face.
No need to troll Little Saigon in search of the perfect bowl of Pho Tai: Head straight for Bodega Bistro. The thin rice noodles, hands down the best ones around, are cooked al dente. The rich broth tastes as if it has been simmering all day, the strips of rare steak are tender and fresh and the traditional southern Vietnamese style toppings of green onions, coriander leaves (aka cilantro), bean sprouts, Thai basil and lime wedges add a bright freshness to this bowl of yum. Put together a little dipping sauce of hoisin and sriracha for your meat, and you are ready to start slurping away (unlike at some other establishments that don’t even offer hoisin upon request — ahem, Turtle Tower).
If you are craving more of a meat medley, the Pho Dac Biet (or as Bodega Bistro calls it, the Pho Bodega Sur Demande) is also excellent, with slices of rare steak, brisket and beef meatballs. If chicken or grilled pork chop pho is more your game, rest assured, they’ve got you covered as well.
I should mention that Pho Tai is not on the dinner or online menu, but trust me, it’s there and waiting for you. Strangely, also not on the menu is the Bun Rieu; perhaps it is so good they want to save it all for their in-the-know clientele (and themselves)? If so, I wouldn’t blame them. The Bun Rieu is a knockout — rice vermicelli with flavorful chunks of crab, shrimp paste and tofu swimming in a tomato broth that has a bit of heat to it.
Referencing the strong French culinary influence in Vietnamese cuisine, Bodgea Bistro offers a range of entrées. However, regulars typically make a beeline for the noodles and authentic Hanoi street cuisine instead. Bun Cha Hanoi is a popular pick, with flavorful broiled pork served soaking in a caramel sauce of sugar and nuoc cham (Vietnamese fish sauce). It is accompanied with an assortment of rice vermicelli, lettuce wraps, pickled carrots and daikon, julienned cucumber and an abundance of fragrant mint and basil leaves.
Banh Xeo is another favorite, a fragrant crepe-like pancake made with rice flour and coconut milk and stuffed with stir-fried shrimp, slivers of pork and crunchy bean sprouts.
And don’t forget the Cha Gio. These crispy Vietnamese spring rolls are stuffed with crab meat, jicama and wood-ear mushrooms, deep-fried to satisfying crispiness and served with the ubiquitous trimmings of leafy lettuce, rice vermicelli, herbs and pickled carrots. Wrap it all up, dip it in the little bowl of nuoc cham and revel in the exquisite balance of savory meatiness, sweet herbal aromatics, bright acidity and textural variety the Vietnamese have mastered in their cuisine.
It is no wonder that these simple, yet satisfying dishes, keep customers coming back for more. Chef-owner Jimmie Kwok began cooking as a child by his mother’s side, serving food in the streets of Hanoi, where the culture of food was a way of life and survival. Indeed, Kwok has successfully brought this passion and sense of urgency into the kitchen of Bodega Bistro, and with each slurp of wonderfully chewy pho, I feel warm, full and fortified.
So when SF throws some wind chill at you, you know what to throw back at it. Pho, lots of it, and mass quantities of other heart-warming, stomach-filling, Vietnamese feel-good food.
Visit LickMySpoon.com for more food reviews, recipes and food musings from Asian Eats writer Stephanie Im.
607 Larkin St. (@ Eddy St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Sunday – Wednesday,
5:00 – 9:30 p.m.
Bun Cha Hanoi (Hanoi-Style Rice Vermicelli with Grilled Pork Lettuce Wraps)
Recipe adapted from Wandering Chopsticks
2 lb pork shoulder, sliced thinly
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons grated onion
4 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Slice the pork as thin as possible. Mix it together with the rest of the ingredients and let it marinate for at least 30 minutes before cooking. If you are letting it sit for awhile, cover it and put it in the refrigerator.
When you are ready to cook, take the meat out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. Drizzle your wok, or large pan, with some vegetable oil and place it on medium-high heat. Place the meat and all of the marinade into the pan. To get a nice brown crust, it is important to let it cook without disturbing it within the first 5-8 minutes. Once the first side is done, flip and brown the other side. Saute until the juices evaporate and the meat is lightly charred.
Do Chua (Pickled Carrots and Daikon):
Recipe from Wandering Chopsticks
1 medium-sized carrot, julienned
1 small daikon, julienned
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 cup white vinegar or rice vinegar
Julienne or coarsely shred the vegetables. Spread them out in a shallow bowl, and sprinkle just enough sugar for a light coating. Add the pinch of salt. Then pour enough vinegar to submerge about half the vegetables. If you are eating this right away, use rice vinegar for a lighter taste. If you intend to store these as pickles, then ordinary white vinegar is fine.
After about 15 minutes or so, stir the vegetables so the vinegar is mixed. The carrots and daikon should be lightly pickled after about half an hour. Store extra pickles and vinegar in a glass jar. Add enough vinegar to fill the jar halfway and fill up the rest with water. Store the jar in the refrigerator.
Nuoc cham (Vietnamese fish sauce):
Tip: this will be pungent, so open your windows and turn on the vent.
5 tablespoons sugar
1 lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/3 cup fish sauce
2/3 cup water
1 clove garlic, minced
Red chili flakes to taste
Place a saucepan over low heat mix together sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, fish sauce, and water. Add the minced chili and garlic. Save extra sauce in a glass jar in the fridge; it should last for a long time.
Vietnamese rice vermicelli:
Boil the noodles and drain them in a colander. Tip: place a bowl, turned upside down in your colander before pour in the noodles to help prevent clumping. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process.
Cilantro, mint, and basil:
Pluck and wash the herbs.
Separate leaves and wash.
Go family style, and place all the ingredients on platters in the middle of the table. Present each diner with their own little bowl of the nuoc cham dipping sauce. Take a big leafy piece of lettuce, pluck some cilantro, mint and basil and place inside. Dunk a handful of noodles in the dipping sauce, and make a little bed on the lettuce. Pile on a few pieces of pork, top with a little pickled carrots and daikon, wrap it all up, and into your mouth it goes!