It survived colonial occupation, war, immigration and migration. Refugees helped spread it around the world. Today, Vietnamese beef noodle soup — called pho — is more popular than ever and has earned a global following, including in Eugene.
The word “pho” rhymes with “duh,” but that’s about the only thing people can agree on. No one really knows why it’s called pho. Although the soup’s origins remain obscure, it seems to be an innovation from the 1910s in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Some say the soup’s rice noodles, which give the dish its name, mean pho has Chinese origins. Others say that no one in Vietnam dreamed of eating cows until the arrival of French colonialists, whose expensive meals left behind beef scraps that needed to be utilized.
The original Hanoi version had only rice noodles and beef. Spices like clove, anise and cinnamon added later give it a complex taste that is savory, sweet and spicy.
But as the soup traveled, it changed. It spread to Saigon, where garnishes like basil, cilantro and chili sauce were introduced. By the time the soup reached the U.S., the variations had multiplied. Today, menus have everything from chicken pho to shrimp pho to vegetarian pho with tofu.
Collected here are six restaurants across Eugene, all of which offer pho for $10 or under.
As a food cart, Tam’s Place Vietnamese Cuisine in south Eugene is the closest to pho’s origins as street food. The pho there was the most savory: warm, hearty and very filling. Diners have the option of outdoor seating, a setting that somehow makes the pho all the more satisfying. Unlike other places in town, Tam’s Place usually serves one kind of pho — beef pho — the single option being another similarity with the original Vietnamese eateries.
Bon Mi is the only pho in downtown Eugene, and that might be its biggest asset: the convenience. The menu offers a range of pho flavors, from chicken to beef and beyond, including one called “spicy noodle.” Bon Mi is a Vietnamese-French restaurant, so the menu features an array of French inspired items. The banh mi sandwiches, with their characteristic baguette and pickled vegetables, are delicious. And for those who can’t decide between pho or a sandwich, the soup-sandwich combo is an excellent solution.
North Eugene’s offering has the famous soup in its name — Pho The Good Times Asian Bistro — and its house special delivers just that: beef pho with brisket, eye of round and meatballs. From this basic starting point, the menu explores variations on this basic theme, from pork to seafood versions, adding up to a total of 14 pho varieties. While the house special sticks to the traditional formula of noodles and beef plus garnish, other items give the recipe a twist, like pho ga (chicken pho) with bok choy and sliced carrots.
It’s not easy being two businesses at once, but west Eugene’s Y’i Shen is both a restaurant and an Asian grocery store, a feat it pulls off gracefully. The small dining area is quirky and cozy and is a perfect location for pho. The pho is at the center of Y’i Shen’s no-nonsense menu, though it serves a variety of other dishes — Vietnamese, Chinese and more. The deluxe pho is clearly prepared with care, featuring hearty chunks of beef and finely sliced tripe.
The Vietnamese Restaurant, not far from Y’i Shen, has almost no internet presence, but seems to have a word-of-mouth following and gets quite busy. Charred ginger and onion — traditional pho ingredients — are sometimes sighted in their large bowls of pho. The restaurant’s interior is simple and unassuming, but the large crowds of international students on weekends suggest they are doing something right.
Saigon Café in west Eugene is one of the latest additions to Eugene’s dining options, now open less than a year. It offers pho of various kinds, as well as several other southeast Asian-style soups, including Phnom Phenh noodle soup, a pho-like soup from Cambodia. The pho broth at Saigon Café was particularly impressive, clear and rich, with the pungent scent of star anise and clove.
The real controversy, of course, is which one is the best. Some say it is about the freshness of the ingredients. Some look to the broth, which should be clear yet flavorful. Others focus on customizing it with the exact amount of sriracha.
But maybe the search for the perfect pho, with the most authentic broth and the best spices, is beside the point. Instead, the real power of Vietnam’s most famous soup is its accessibility, its adaptability and its ability to find fans in faraway places.
• Tam’s Place is in the parking lot of Healthy Pet on 2777 Friendly Street. Open noon to 7:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday.
• Bon Mi is at 153 E. Broadway, open 10:30 am to 9 pm Monday through Saturday and 11 am to 6 pm Sunday.
• Pho The Good Times Asian Bistro is in Crescent Village at 2729 Shadow View Drive. Open every day 11 am to 9 pm.
• Yi Shen is at 1915 W. 11th Avenue. Open 9 am to 8 pm every day except Sunday.
• Vietnam Restaurant is at 2355 W. 11th Avenue. Open 11 am to 9 pm every day.
• Saigon Café is at 4355 Commerce Street. Open 11 am to 8:30 pm Monday through Saturday and 11 am to 7 pm Sunday.