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Cooking Pho a Cause

March 13, 2014

Guest post by Otis Maxwell

[Note from the Profussor: Once again I am thrilled to report that despite being on sabbatical from the Capital Region that yet another reader of the FUSSYlittleBLOG volunteered to stand-in as a correspondent and cover a local restaurant story of note. Today we hear from Otis Maxwell of Burnt My Fingers, and he is a man who knows his pho. I’ve sat down to eat with him several times, and I trust his judgement. Getting his perspective on the below was a real score. Enjoy.]

Pho, the national soup of Vietnam, is popular in many urban areas but has been embraced rather timidly by restaurants in the Capital District. The key to good pho is a robust and aggressively flavored stock: for the beef version, the more meat the better, including bones. The finished product is served with noodles and yet more beef, and often tripe and tendon, and presented with accompanying herbs, bean sprouts, lime, chilis and sauces to be added at the diner’s preference.

Linh Sullins, who emigrated from South Vietnam as an infant, learned cooking from her mother and seems to be taking pho in the right direction. Her base is made with brisket, flank steak, oxtail and marrow bones and she properly chars her onion and ginger. The stock, provided on its own at a tasting this week in Ballston Spa, was as intense and flavor-balanced as anything I’ve had outside of California or Texas, two states with large Vietnamese populations.

The focus this night, however, was on a chicken version of the pho, served with an excellent nem nung sausage made with ground chicken, shallots and scallions accented with Dr. Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and coconut oil and thickened with toasted ground rice. Linh uses Dr. Bragg’s instead of the customary fish sauce (and agave instead of sugar) because of a general commitment to “heart healthy” eating that is lower in sodium and stresses natural ingredients; most of her preps are also gluten-free.

The tasting took place at Good Morning Breakfast at the north end of Ballston Spa, which starting in May will transform into Good Night Noodle on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. And therein lies a tale which takes us back to Southeast Asia with a destination not in Vietnam, but in a small Cambodian village called Poysomroung.

Nancy Holzman, owner of Good Morning Breakfast, has a past career as a literacy tutor. She met Sophann Sam through a tutoring position and discovered how needy Sophann’s native village was and how good Sophann was at cooking her indigenous cuisine. From this a series of special dinners emerged with Sophann and her sister Sophie cooking, and the proceeds going to buy rice, a rototiller, school materials and other essentials for the village of Poysomroung. Nancy is a believer in Direct Access Giving—“DIG”—in which every dollar raised goes immediately to the beneficiary. That first dinner purchased five tons of rice, she reports.

Now, with Linh cooking Vietnamese three nights a week, Nancy has stepped up her game and launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo. You can contribute at various levels and the more you kick in, the more pho you will get to eat once the night service begins in May. The most savory level may be “Noodle Night” at $60 which, in addition to getting you two bowls of pho and a spring roll, enters you in a drawing for an invitation for two to opening night and 26 (!) servings of pad thai noodles. That drawing will be held on March 29.

Good Night Noodle is close enough to SPAC that it could be a convenient take-out location for those on the way to a concert. (Bahn mi sandwiches are under consideration.) Nancy was concerned about introducing new and unfamiliar tastes to her local clientele of hearty breakfast eaters, but reception so far as been excellent. Does that mean tripe and tendon in the pho? Not quite yet, says Linh. That is a “to be continued” item. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Otis Maxwell is a lover of ethnic cuisine and organ meats. He writes about his own food discoveries and techniques on Burnt My Fingers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh K. permalink
    March 13, 2014 12:19 pm

    Sounds good. I will be sure to check it out. But I remain firm that (outside of this new place which I haven’ tried) Van’s offers the best Pho in the region thus far. And yes I can now proudly say I have had good Pho in San Francisco and of course in Vietnam – and Van’s still holds up. Never been a fan of spending my evening wrecking my jaw chewing on tendon and tripe – so I never consider that the be prerequisite for a good bowl of noodles.

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