Not too long ago, catilinus put up a New Day diary about hole-in-the-wall dives. There seemed to be some agreement in the comments that there is an inverse relationship between the appearance of the restaurant and the quality of the food. I don't know that I'd classify the restaurant I'm going to talk about this evening as a "dive"--it's quite well-known, and it is considered by many to be a Houston treasure--but it's definitely a hole in the wall and an example of that inverse relationship between quality and appearance.
My love affair with pho began a little less than two years ago, right after I met my boyfriend (who is, for those who don't know, Vietnamese). I joined him at his grandmother's house for a Lunar New Year party, and needless to say, I felt a little out of place. I didn't know what any of the food was, but my BF's grandma instructed him to dish me up a bowl of homemade pho. She couldn't speak English, but the look on a white pho virgin's face after his first bowl of pho is really a universal language, and she quickly made sure I had a second bowl in front of me.
As far as first pho experiences go, it really doesn't get better than a bowl of pho at a Vietnamese grandmother's house. But ever since that day, I have been on a quixotic quest to find a bowl of pho in Houston that matches those two bowls I ate at the Lunar New Year party. Trying out new pho restaurants has become something of a passion of mine. And I've found some great places. Hell, I'll name-drop for those of you who are or will be in Houston--there's Pho Danh in Chinatown and Pho Saigon in Midtown. But one pho restaurant reigns supreme: Pho Binh Trailer. Not Pho Binh on Westheimer, which is owned by the same Nguyen family, but Pho Binh Trailer. And yes, as the name suggests, it's literally in a trailer. Follow me below the rice noodles...
I'm pretty confident when I say that Pho Binh Trailer, located in southeast Houston, is really the best the city has to offer in the pho department. As any lover of pho will tell you, the broth makes the bowl, and the Trailer has the recipe and method down. I don't know what all they add to the broth, but I suspect angel wings and unicorn tears are involved. The pho broth is so legendary that the poorly air-conditioned trailer is always packed, even in 90-plus-degree heat. Don't be fooled by the appearance--this trailer (or rather, series of trailers and additions that have been built onto by the Nguyen family since the 1980s) has it going on.
The pho is so good that it earned the Best Pho in Houston title in 2010, as well as a gushing article in the Houston Chronicle calling it "the little trailer that could." Everything the article says is true, and then some. Trust me, I wouldn't drive 20 miles--or almost to NASA--to sit in a hot, crowded trailer in 95-degree weather if the pho wasn't the best. This is what the restaurant looks like on the inside. This is really all there is to it.
I made the trip today, for the first time since they reopened (they close down the Trailer location for several weeks during the summer so the owners can go back to Vietnam). I have a cold and a mild hangover, both of which nothing soothes like a bowl of Pho Binh Trailer soup. My personal favorite is the pho with the fattiest brisket they have, with no onion or cilantro. Pho broth doesn't get much clearer or richer than this...
I don't know how I look when I eat my pho, but I imagine I look pretty ridiculous with sweat beads forming on my face and my nose running. But it's totally worth it. Good to the last drop...literally. An angel dies every time somebody wastes good pho broth.
So, if you are in Houston or if you ever find yourself in the area and fancy a bowl of pho, don't accept any substitutes. Pho Binh Trailer is where you need to be. The Nguyen family has taught us an important lesson--never judge a restaurant by its appearance alone.
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