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Pho lovers, mark your calendars. On March 11, the Iowa Asian Alliance wants you to help judge the 2017 Pho King Cook-off.

Last year the event was sold out, and this year organizers have increased the number of tickets available to 500. Each general-admission ticket includes all-you-can-eat pho (a Vietnamese noodle soup) and one vote in the People’s Choice award.

A number of area chefs will be competing (last year there were eight) and it’s a great place for “for those who love pho to be immersed in it and to be able to try private and restaurant pho chefs dishes all at one time,” says Nu Huynh, executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance.

New this year is a Sidekick Competition in which participating chefs will make papaya salad and compete for the Pho King Sidekick Trophy. There also will be live entertainment, DJs and drinks. If all-you-can-eat pho and papaya salad doesn’t fill you up, the event also has a pho-eating contest for a $10 registration fee.

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The reigning Pho King of Des Moines, Don Cotran from Pho 515, is eager to defend his crown at this year's Pho King Cook-Off. A jeweler by trade, Cotran shares how he learned the art of making pho and has some tips for people wishing to try their hand at making the popular dish at home.

Why do you compete in the Pho King Cook-Off?

The reason we competed the first year is the same reason we are going back for the second year. We would like to promote pho for the community here as a whole and secondly to expand the Vietnamese cuisine for everyone to try.

What gave your pho an edge over the competition last year?

I think I edged out the competition with the presentation to the judges, and then the authenticity of what I brought to the judges. I did our popular P1 pho, which has all the regular cuts like brisket, eye of round, but I also threw in the ethnic cuts, too, the true cuts for a real bowl of pho — tendon, tripe and meatballs.

How would you describe pho to someone who's never had it before?

It is a meal, a full entree. You have your noodles, the meat, the veggies, all the bases of the pyramid, all the food you really need in a bowl. It digests well. It’s very rich in flavor, there are 10 layers of flavor just in the broth alone.

What should a home cook know before making pho?

I recommend not wasting your time cooking for two. Make a big batch, take a big stock pot and make enough for at least 15-20 quarts so you can serve 10-15 people. Unless you’re going to serve it twice. I have friends who can eat pho morning, noon and night for days in a row.

It takes at least three to four hours to cook the broth and bring out the flavor of the herbs. For the most part, the broth is the main part of the pho. Once you have the broth, you can add whatever ingredients you want.

How did you learn to make pho?

My great uncle originally cooked in California for five or six years and when we first opened up the restaurant, I knew he was a good pho cook. I called him and said I really need you out here, I can learn a lot from you, and he came over, taught me what he knew and even more, we picked things up from each other and then actually made our broth even better each day. From there we tweaked it and tweaked it and fine-tuned it.

What’s your biggest challenge cooking pho?

When you cook a broth you can’t boil it all the time. The challenge is finding different tactics to preserve the original taste consistently. Even though I’m serving 200-300 pho sometimes a day, to keep trying to keep the same consistency, the same tastes, day in and day out, that’s the challenge now. And we’re really improving on that.

Pho King Cook-Off

  • Saturday, March 11
  • Val Air Ballroom, West Des Moines
  • 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. (doors open at 11 a.m. for VIP ticket holders)
  • Must be 21 and older to attend
  • Regular admission tickets available for $30 at www.iowaasianalliance.com

Try some pho

Want to get a pho fix before the event? Try these area restaurants.

  • A Dong Restaurant, 1511 High Street, Des Moines
  • Aroy-Dee, 2128 Indianola Avenue, Des Moines
  • Fawn’s Asian Cuisine, 1107 E University Avenue, Des Moines
  • H’s Pho, 286 Hickman Road, Waukee
  • Lucky Bamboo Asian Cuisine, 1555 SE Delaware Avenue, Ankeny 
  • Pho 888, 1521 2nd Avenue, Des Moines
  • Nut Pob, 3322 Indianola Avenue, Des Moines
  • Pho 515, 801 University Ave, Des Moines
  • Pho 85, 1701 SE Delaware Avenue, Ankeny
  • Pho All Seasons, 1311 E Euclid Avenue, Des Moines
  • Shanghai, 33 Carefree Lane, Waukee
  • T & T Vietnamese Restaurant, 3452 Martin Luther King Jr Parkway, Des Moines
  • Vietnam Cafe, Merle Hay Mall Food Court, Des Moines
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