Vietnamese Pho, its history, and 5 Places to get it in Port Arthur
What is pho?
Pho – pronounced “fuh” – is the dish most associated with the Vietnamese. Beef or chicken broth is the base for this noodle soup – the national dish – flavored with various spices and herbs like star anise, black cardamom, and cassia bark. It comes in a number of ways and it is always accompanied with a plate of fresh chile slices, mint sprigs, Thai basil, bean sprouts and lime wedges.
Build Your Own Adventure
The beautiful thing about pho is that it has several elements going on in terms of flavor, taste and textures. Think of eating pho as “a build your own adventure type dish.” Make it as complex as you’d like, adding all the toppings available on the accompanying plate at once. Or add bean sprouts as you go for that fresh crunchy bite to contrast with the soft pho noodles and meat.
Personally, I like adding it first and letting it simmer to soften that crunch some. You can make the broth limier if you like a bit of a tangy taste. Or make it spicy with Sriracha sauce that’s a staple at every Vietnamese restaurant table. Hoisin sauce and fish sauce are also on most tables. Hoisin adds a bit of sweetness and fish sauce adds a bit of saltiness, depth and complexity to the dish. Many folks are intimidated by the strong smell of fish sauce. Diluted in the broth, it adds a rich flavor. Caution: A little can go a long way. Don’t be too heavy handed. It’s about trial and error when figuring out the taste of pho you like best.
Each bowl is as unique as you make it, but pho itself comes in many variations and you cannot expect two bowls of pho made in separate kitchens to ever taste the same.
Vietnam to Port Arthur
After the fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese refugees came to the U.S. (many through sponsorships) and made Jefferson county their home in the ‘70s. There are photos floating around of shrimp boat fleets from 1980 and of the various Vietnamese shops and markets that are still there today from 1985.
Many Vietnamese immigrants were fishermen and made Port Arthur their home because the climate and geography closely resemble coastal South Vietnam. This brought a sense of comfort and familiarity being so far from their native homeland. The Vietnamese made a life around the Gulf Coast seafood industry, many owning their own shrimp boats.
Building a Community
Three people are most responsible for the success of this local settlement of Vietnamese refugees. They are Dow Wynn, Port director of the City of Port Arthur and lay chairman of the Vietexans resettlement program; Father William Manger, a Beaumont parish priest; and Father Tran Van Khoat, a Vietnamese priest. Khoat first envisioned a large-scale, self-supporting Vietnamese community on the upper Gulf Coast. He imagined a Vietnamese farming, fishing and manufacturing community with its own schools and hospitals.
Fast forward to present day, the Vietnamese community is still very deeply rooted in Port Arthur and some have set up restaurants to share authentic Vietnamese cuisine with the community. Vietnamese food has risen in popularity in recent years and has moved from the margins to mainstream acceptance in “foodie culture.”
5 Places to Get Pho in Port Arthur
Pho Tai Bo Vien from Uyen’s Restaurant
3708 Gulfway Dr. Suite D Port Arthur, TX 77642
Uyen’s has been around for almost a decade serving up authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Their broth particularly hits the spot for anyone trying to get through a cold wintery day. It is so well balanced in flavor with a slight sweetness that only comes with “southern style Vietnamese pho.” Yes, pho also can differ regionally in taste in the country of Vietnam. Most of our local pho is prepared southern style. The pho tai bo vien (meatball and rare beef noodle soup) is particularly delicious and enjoyable at Uyen’s.
My advice: Order extra meatballs and ask for a small dipping dish to dunk the meatballs into sriracha or hoisin sauce. Some people like to enjoy the meatballs this way. Personally, this was how I ate it growing up, eating some with the noodle soup and some as a side.
Pho Ga from Far East Restaurant
2523 Jefferson Port Arthur, TX 77642
For those who love chicken, Far East serves up a delicious chicken pho (pho ga). The broth is also particularly delicious and chicken may be an easy way to ease new pho enthusiasts into enjoying pho. The chicken that accompanies pho is typically lean white meat.
My advice: Pick up a little bit of everything with your chopsticks (noodle, meats, bean sprouts, etc.) for a perfect bite followed by a slurp of the broth with your pho spoon. Slurping is not considered impolite by the Vietnamese and is in fact a compliment that you are enjoying their food. Most Vietnamese restaurant atmospheres are very relaxed and family owned. Just consider yourself family.
Bonus: Their pan-fried dumplings are out of this world. Crispy, light, and delicious. The perfect appetizer to a rich bowl of comforting pho.
Pho Dac Biet from Saigon Café
3919 Gulfway Dr. Port Arthur, TX 77642
Saigon Café is pretty new to the scene and opened up during the midst of Covid-19 in the summer of 2020. The atmosphere is most unique in that it is also a pool hall and karaoke bar. Their menu offers a unique food selection unlike any other local Vietnamese restaurants. They offer specialty dishes often eaten at communal gatherings and cater special events. Think stir-fried mussels, lobster, escargot, goat, quail, duck tongue, etc., hot pot dishes and an impressive selection of Vietnamese desserts. Their pho dac biet (“special pho”) has all the usual toppings: rare eye round beef, tendon, tripe, meatballs, and brisket. The meat is exceptionally tender and delicious at this location. They are also generous with toppings.
My advice: Bring a translator app to translate their menu, which is currently entirely in Vietnamese.
Bonus: Their frozen Vietnamese coffees are to die for. Grass jelly is optional. We had it with grass jelly.
Pho Neches pho from Pho Neches
2370 Nall #E Port Neches, TX 77651
The “Pho Neches pho” is the signature dish unique to this new restaurant that opened up in February of 2019. Owners Trinh Tran and Chuck Dinh serves up pho in a unique way in that this signature dish comes with a large delicious beef rib. You can even add extras at three dollars apiece. The bowl with the large rib is an attention getter as waitresses pass by your table to serve others with this unique bowl. The meat on the rib is so tender and flavorful from simmering in the delicious pho broth. Enjoy the beef rib before, after, or while eating your pho. While the rib seems to the attention getting star of this bowl, it is also accompanied with the usual toppers of tasty eye-round steak, beef meatballs, tripe, brisket and tendon.
My advice: Ask for pho without tripe if you’re not into chewy textures.
Bonus: 10 out of 10 would recommend their salted pepper squid, shrimp, and sate wonton appetizer. You can order an appetizer sampler plate and this combo hit it out of the ballpark. Also, their lychee lemonade is refreshingly good.
Pho Thit Nuong from Pho Ha
3324 Nederland Avenue Nederland, TX 77627
The pho thit nuong (chargrilled pork pho) is by far the most untraditional pho of all the pho that we have tasted and enjoyed in the area. Chargrilled pork is traditionally never served with pho, but instead with other dishes like vermicelli. It has been so enjoyed by local patrons at Pho Ha that the owner obliged and put it on the menu. It is truly unique and shows how pho can evolve as a dish thanks to local patrons. New owner Kim Tran happily chats and listens to customers as she serves up delicious Vietnamese cuisine with pride and caters to customers’ requests. As of January 1st, 2021, Kim Tran, who has worked at Pho Ha since it opened seven years ago, bought the restaurant from the former owner Huan Nguyen. She perhaps currently the youngest Vietnamese restaurant owner locally. She credits the restaurant’s success to listening to her customers, making them feel at home and serving food they love.
So as you can see, pho is growing in popularity in Port Arthur and spreading like wildlife to surrounding areas. It is enjoyable in so many ways and variations. We hope to have inspire you and spark your interest in trying pho. Maybe you have already. There are so many options to appeal to tastebuds of all kinds.
Phuong Conway is a Vietnamese foodie, photographer, cat rescuer and all things exotic animal lover who lives in Southeast Texas with her husband and fellow globe trotter, Cody.