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"Use your noodle" Pho is fun at Annie Cafe - Courier-Journal Review

By Sarah Fritschner
sfritschner@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal - Louisville, KY

Annie Tran’s mother earned money by making and selling pho for 25 years before the family left Vietnam for the United States.

The dish is offered with a side of fresh condiments, and the diner adds what he chooses. These sides usually include a lime, and any combination of bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions, jalapeno slices, Thai basil, mint and a long leaf with saw-tooth edging that tastes a little like cilantro but is more substantial.

When a friend tried to persuade her to open a restaurant in Louisville, Tran’s mother protested that she was too old, Tran recalls.

So the job fell to Tran, who five years ago opened Annie Cafe in Louisville’s near South End, which serves all kinds of Vietnamese dishes but specializes in and mostly sells pho.

Pho (pronounced “phuh”) is a touchstone of Vietnamese cuisine, a dish everyone eats often, and almost no one ever tires of.

It’s a Northern dish, according to Tran, who grew up in the Southern city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), but it’s made everywhere now, usually of beef broth, sometimes of chicken, with more modern versions of seafood or pork.

Pho was traditionally eaten as breakfast in Vietnam but can be eaten any time of day or night, usually purchased from vendors, like Tran’s mother, or small shops.

It is a meal-sized dish. A large bowl, filled first with noodles — usually rice noodles but sometimes wheat — with sliced meat on top, is filled with the most flavorful broth you can imagine.

Though Vietnamese cookbooks often refer to pho as a “noodle dish” — pho meaning “noodle” or “noodle soup” it looks like soup to a Westerner.

The dish is offered with a side of fresh condiments, and the diner adds what he chooses. These sides usually include a lime, and any combination of bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions, jalapeno slices, Thai basil, mint and a long leaf with saw-tooth edging that tastes a little like cilantro but is more substantial.

Some people also add hot sauce and/or hoisin, says Tran, or some make a little dish of hot sauce on the side, and lift the meat out of the soup for dipping. A squeeze of lime to the broth adds the special something that Tran describes as improved aroma.

Then with chopsticks in your dominant hand and a spoon in your other hand, you go about eating, lifting meat, greens and noodles as best you can with chopsticks, scooping up broth with the spoon.

It’s a satisfying process, especially in cold weather. Tran has done the work — simmering beef bones and aromatic spices such as cinnamon and star anise for a minimum of five hours; washing the greens and picking through the bean sprouts, all so you don’t have to.

All that’s required of us, if indeed we choose the basic pho, is to decide among all the additions — traditional beef, perhaps, or chicken? Or, should we be more adventurous and get the beef tendon, simmered for hours to tenderize and providing an unusual but somehow delicious chew.

Annie Cafe is at 308 W. Woodlawn Ave. (between South Third Street and Southern Parkway. The phone number is (502) 363-4847. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.