The fervor my family and I have exhibited toward phở over the years is almost religious in nature. For my peer (read: upper millennial) readership, the best comparison I can draw is the phenomenon of people incessantly quoting Fight Club throughout high school and college. I have friends who must have seen the cult classic, like, three dozen times. I don’t often rewatch movies, but I’ve made more trips to Phở Da Cao than I can count.
The first rule of Phở Club is: You do not say "foe." (Phở is your friend!) The proper pronunciation of phở is something like "fuhhh?" as the last letter is drawn out, like a delicious question, denoted by the squiggle on the "o."
For the uninitiated, phở is a rice noodle soup prized for its hard-won beef stock, usually seasoned with cinnamon, cloves, coriander, star anise, cardamom, and fish sauce. "We use a lot of our brisket and bones and let it sit and boil for a whole day basically, to get all the flavor," Thai said. Don’t try this at home. I, for one, have ruinously failed to recreate the stock in my InstantPot. (Damn you, Pinterest.)
I’ve eaten hundreds of bowls of phở if you count my California childhood, when my dad and Vietnamese stepmother would regularly pile us kids into the van to get our fix at our favorite East Bay joint, a cherished rite.
When we have that craving for phở in Tulsa, nowhere else satisfies quite like Phở Da Cao. Feeling down? Stuck in a rut? Allow this Vietnamese eatery to deliver a punch in the mouth à la Brad Pitt circa 1999.
The Vietnamese population is notably large in our community, with an estimated 3,815 in Tulsa County, according to the Census Bureau. Many of these folks live in East Tulsa, where Phở Da Cao is located (just west of 31st Street and Mingo Road). At least, that’s where you’ll find a lot of them eating—a good sign, I might add.
The decor at Phở Da Cao provides a distinctly un-trendy Asian setting, complete with images of tranquil scenery: mountains, a waterfall, cranes. The menu is not frilly: associated with each item is a letter and number to aid in communication, common practice at phở spots. ("P7," for example, is my go-to.)
Soft spoken and eager to please, 24-year-old Lawson Thai greets me warmly. Thai is a utility player for the Vietnamese-Chinese family owned and operated establishment. His oldest brother assumed ownership in the summer of 2009. Since then, Thai has been cleaning, restocking, prepping food, and learning how to cook. Mostly, though, he’s been doing his best to make guests happy.
On a recent occasion, someone ordered a hard boiled egg to go with her phở. "I had to ask her twice to make sure," Thai said. "The people in the kitchen got mad at me but I was like, I’m sorry, but I can’t say no!"
The entire staff is similarly accommodating. On one recent Christmas Day, we brought my extended family, as most other restaurants were closed. There were a dozen of us, aged one to 93, including a vegetarian (note: they have a veggie phở option) and some who had never eaten Vietnamese food. The waitstaff took care of us all; we felt like family among family.
The kitchen and floor staff is comprised of blood relatives—such as Thai’s five siblings and father—as well as people who are considered to be family such as Snow, the server who always greets me with a smile and knows my usual order by heart.
My family’s religious phở fervor can best be understood by our rituals. We always order the large (the price break is too good). We always take the rest to go (the large is huge). We have a special way of pouring the leftovers into the carry out container without spilling it all over ourselves (there’s a trick).
And my most delicious ritual: The P7, phở đặc biệt. It has the classic, complex-yet-light soup base and includes a combination of proteins—thinly-sliced eye of round steak and lean brisket; beef meatballs, which are a bit chewy from the added cartilage; thick, soft, and utterly satisfying tendon; and fun-to-bite tripe. You know what? Don’t think too hard about the ingredients; just enjoy their unique textures. (Or, if all that weirds you out, get the P1, which just has the steak.)
Like all phở, it is served with a plate of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil (which the Vietnamese call "cinnamon basil"), fresh sliced jalapenos, and lime. Tip: Dump it all in your bowl as soon as it arrives to allow your steaming hot soup to soften the aromatics.
Next, doctor up your phở with your choice among the array of condiments stationed at each table: hoisin, fish sauce, sriracha, soy sauce, or chili oil, the latter of which will make you feel alive—I always add it along with a squirt of hoisin and a doodle of sriracha.
Kool Aid is overrated; if I’m going to drink something to prove my loyalty, it’s this soup.