Anthony Bourdain (among others) would likely have a field day castigating the notion of a vegetarian pho. But with all due respect to Mr. Bourdain, whose No Reservations sits atop my list of all-time favorite shows, I would have to say that he has no clue what he’s talking about when it comes to the often polarizing subject of vegetarian food. I’ve been living in New York for about three years now, slowly accumulating a list of favorite meals I’ve enjoyed as a resident. I’ve noticed a burgeoning trend when it comes to this list: the majority of my favorite meals here have been meatless. From the delicious, almost euphorically good Mulata arepa at Caracas Arepa Bar to the dosas and dahl at Jackson Diner. And to me, a great falafel from any of the city’s many falafel trucks is more New York than a dirty-water hot dog. Even vegan ice cream (to many, an oxymoron) is well represented by Stogo, my favorite local ice cream shop.
Just recently, I discovered a wonderful neighborhood joint called Lan Cafe. It’s one of those places I’ve walked by several times, but never stopped long enough to pick up a menu or consider ordering from there. Then last week I found myself deep in the thrust of a bad cold. I didn’t want to cook, I barely even wanted to eat, but the one thing I wanted badly was a good, spicy soup. Turned out, my hundreds of trips walking past Lan Cafe paid off, because I remembered that it was a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant, which meant vegetarian pho. Theirs was delicious — a sweet and spicy blend of deep flavors and bright notes of cilantro and mint. I told myself that when I recovered, I would try to recreate their pho and post it here.
One reason I wanted to make a homemade pho was that, while Lan’s was certainly delcious, I suspected there was some hidden sugar in theirs — both in the broth and in the hoisin sauce, which is a must for an optimal pho experience. I decided to experiment with making a homemade hoisin sauce. It turned out super good! The best part is, it can easily be used for a number of dishes, and you won’t have to worry about the processed sugar that is in just about all store bought hoisins I’ve seen. So below, I’ve included a recipe for the hoisin I made along with the pho recipe. It’s somewhat of a labor-intensive process to prepapre everything, but well worth the effort, and you’ll have a big pot to last you all week. For my recipe, I used Chinese Five Spice powder instead of steeping the broth with cinnnamon, clove and star anise. My Aunt Sue bought me a nice blend of Chinese Five Spice for Christmas and I’ve been dying to use it in something.
1 quart vegetable stock
5 cups water
1 long ginger root, cut into quarters
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice powder
3 tablespoons reduced-sodium wheat-free tamari
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 bunch baby bok choy, chopped
1 cup bean sprouts
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
3 scallions, chopped
1 block extra-firm tofu, cubed
1 package rice noodles
salt to taste
homemade hoisin sauce (recipe below)
chile garlic sauce/paste (to taste)
fresh mint leaves (for serving)
fresh cilantro (for serving)
1. In a large soup pot, bring vegetable stock, water, ginger root, garlic, five spice powder, soy sauce and pepper to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain broth into a new, clean pot. Discard solids. Add agave nectar and salt to taste. Bring stock back to a boil and add vegetables and tofu. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables have softened.
2. Meanwhile, prepare rice noodles separately, according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
3. To serve, individually add rice noodles to bowl. Pour in soup. Top with a generous dollop of homemade hoisin, chile garlic paste, and top with mint and cilantro leaves. Serve with lime wedges on the side.
1/4 cup black bean paste (found in Asian food aisle)
1/4 cup agave nectar
1 plum tomato, roughly chopped
5 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon arrowroot
2 teaspoons chile garlic paste/sauce
1. Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth.
2. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until bubbly and thickened, about 5 minutes.