Walk into Flying Pho, the new Garden Oaks/Oak Forest spot that soft-opened in May, and you’ll be asked a question you might think is a joke.
“Have you ever had pho?”
Uh ... hello ... this is Houston? We’d bathe in pho if it didn’t cause third-degree burns?
But then the server informs you that you probably haven’t had this particular preparation of the Vietnamese noodle bowl. Flying Pho serves—and only serves—pho bac (along with fried egg rolls, a butter bun, and assorted beverages including cafe sua da), which originates in the northern end of the country and is the original preparation of the dish.
There are few ingredients: a wide rice noodle, a clear and savory broth, minced beef, and green onions. This isn’t the veggie-packed, meat-filled, spice-laden carnival of southern pho, the kind available at 99 percent of American restaurants that serve Vietnamese cuisine.
Northern pho (also called Hanoi pho) came first, and as the dish made its way south, natives added the veggies, meat, and spices. And there’s a simple reason we Americans eat southern (or Saigon) pho, and never the northern stuff: the Vietnam War.
“We don’t have a lot of northern refugees, so there hasn’t been a real demand for Northern Vietnamese food,” says Christopher Huang, owner of Flying Pho. You may know Huang from Ninja Ramen, which also specializes in a not-your-typical style: the Asahikawa ramen from Hokkaido, Japan, characterized by a thin film of oil, great for cold weather enjoyment.
A trend is showing with Huang: he’d rather not do the same thing as everyone else.
“A lot of people go into restaurants to make money or for glamour. I don’t,” he says. “I always said ‘If I wanted to make money I’d just sell tacos.’”
Huang reckons he’s risking it by opening an eatery that only serves a dish that’s hard to find outside California (and, of course, Northern Vietnam). He saw the early Yelp reviews for Flying Pho, in which patrons complained that it wasn’t “traditional pho,” but he says he's learning that communication is most important. He’s confident Houston is ready for it.
He’s also made some changes, with more to come. The server’s opening monologue about northern pho was added after the soft opening as a way to teach patrons about the dish. Plus, when Flying Pho has its grand opening in August it’ll introduce its second pho dish, pho ga tron, a pho "salad" with chicken, vegetables, and a personal side cup of chicken broth. It's also popular in Hanoi, but hard to find elsewhere.
Brunch is coming. Huang says the grand opening will bring a weekend service with Vietnamese fried chicken, fried rice, and other staples that should be more familiar to Houstonians. Still, he adds, “We want to stay in people’s minds that this is a pho shop.”
After the monologue you have a decision to make: get the pho or turn around and walk out the door. On a recent Sunday, I watched several potential customers listen to the introduction. All of them thought for a split second, nodded, and continued onward with their journey into the great north. Hanoi pho was served. Broth was slurped. Al dente rice noodles were enjoyed with tender chunks of marinated and seared filet mignon. Pickled peppers may or may not have been added, just for texture, but the broth was more savory than watery.
It’ll take some time for Huang to win over everyone with his take on this "super-traditional" pho, as he calls it, but he’s considered the alternatives, and he’s not about to open a taco stand.