Note: When Sacramento restaurateur and cookbook author Mai Pham and her family arrived in the United States in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, beef noodle soup (pho bo) was one of the things they desperately missed. In Vietnam, steaming bowls of pho were a part of daily life. In their early days in the U.S., she and her family ate pho whenever they could find it--whether it was particularly good or not--because it was a taste of home.
You can prepare the broth early in the day and assemble the dish just before serving. Make sure the bowls are preheated before using. Vietnamese cooks are very particular about making sure the broth comes out as clear as possible. This is why the roast and bones are brought to a boil, then transferred to a new pot of boiling water: The solids released from the initial boil are discarded with the first batch of water. If the onion begins to break up and muddy the broth before the recipe calls for it to be removed, take it out of the pot. And be sure to remove the spice bag before it starts to darken the broth or overpower the flavor.
1 (2-pound) chuck roast
5 pounds beef marrow bones
2 (4-inch) pieces ginger root, unpeeled
1 large brown onion, peeled
1/3 cup fish sauce
5 tablespoons sugar
6 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon salt
NOODLES AND ASSEMBLY
1/2 pound beef sirloin steak, slightly frozen
1 1/2 pounds (1/8-inch-wide) fresh or dried flat rice stick noodles (banh pho)
1 brown onion, sliced paper thin
4 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 pound bean sprouts
20 sprigs Asian basil (rau que)
12 leaves culantro (saw-leaf herb, ngo gai)), optional
1/4 cup chopped Thai bird chiles or 1/4 cup thinly sliced serrano chiles
2 limes, cut into thin wedges
Bring 6 quarts water to boil in large stockpot.
Put roast and bones in separate pot with water to cover and boil 5 minutes. Using metal tongs, remove roast and bones and add to first pot of boiling water. When water returns to boil, reduce heat and bring to simmer.
Char ginger and onion. Rinse and add to broth. Add fish sauce and sugar. (Smell will initially be pungent but will subside.) Simmer, skimming surface often to remove foam and fat, until roast is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove meat from broth, submerge in bowl of water 15 minutes to prevent meat from darkening and drying out, then wrap in plastic and set aside until ready to serve. (Refrigerate if soup is not being eaten immediately after cooking.)
Add water to pot if needed to bring to 5 quarts liquid. Put anise, cloves and cinnamon in dampened spice bag or wrap in damp cheesecloth and tie with string and add to broth. Let spices infuse about 1 hour in simmering broth, skimming surface often, then remove and discard spices and onion. (Note: Cooking spices too long makes broth dark and pungent; begin tasting broth after 45 minutes of simmering to check flavor.) Add salt and keep on low simmer while preparing noodles and condiments. Broth should be rich enough to serve after 2 1/2 hours total cooking time but can simmer longer; don't turn heat on and off if eating soup same day. (Note: Broth may taste salty but will balance out once noodles and accompaniments are added.)
NOODLES AND ASSEMBLY
Cut half of reserved roast from Beef Broth into thin slices and reserve remainder for another use. Cut partially frozen sirloin into paper-thin slices. Put roast and sirloin on separate plates and set aside.
Bring large pot water to boil. Place handful of fresh noodles (enough for 1 serving) in sieve and lower into boiling water. Using fork or chopsticks, stir 15 seconds, then lift and shake off water. Transfer to large heated bowl. Repeat for 5 more bowls. (Note: If using dried noodles, soak in water to cover 20 minutes. Cook all at once until al dente, 2 to 3 minutes. Rinse well in warm water, then divide among heated bowls.)
Place few slices roast and sirloin on noodles in each bowl. Bring Beef Broth up from low simmer to rolling boil and ladle 3 cups broth on each serving. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon sliced brown onion, 1 tablespoon green onions and 1 tablespoon cilantro on top of each bowl. Season with pepper to taste. Garnish with bean sprouts, Asian basil, saw-leaf herb, chiles and squeeze of lime juice as desired at table.
6 main-course servings. Each serving with 3 cups broth: 649 calories; 1,873 mg sodium; 56 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 118 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 7.07 grams fiber.