Local restaurant wins top prize at 2nd Annual Pho King Cook-Off Brian Taylor Carlson/The Register
People roam around the huge ballroom, clasping hot, steaming bowls of soup in one hand, chopsticks and napkins with the other. The warm scent of star anise, clove and cinnamon fills the air.
Chefs ladle aromatic broth over soft rice noodles as the team works like an assembly line of meat, seafood and vegetable garnishes. Allionce dance team — wearing two-man dragon costumes — performs as people chow down on spicy green papaya salad.
It’s the second annual Pho King Cook-Off, and it’s in full swing. This cook-off gives perhaps the most wide-ranging glimpse into Des Moines’ growing and diverse pho scene. And it’s bursting with tips on how to spot a good bowl of pho, where to find it and how to make it at home.
Here’s what I learned:
The Des Moines pho scene is growing — and it’s growing fast. Our city has a remarkably diverse population, and pho restaurants have popped up all over the area — with more on the way. Several pho chefs operate out of other venues or do pop-up ventures around town.
“I think it’s nice to try different chefs’ pho without traveling all over Des Moines,” said attendee Han Wu. He attended the first competition last year and came back for more.
About 500 food enthusiasts attended the cook-off on March 11 at Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines. Doors opened at 11 a.m. to VIP ticket holders to watch five celebrity judges taste pho from six entries to determine the winning Pho King Chef.
At noon, general admission began for the all-you-can-eat tasting, and chefs kept lines moving quickly while eager tasters worked their way through all six variations of pho dishes. The competition was emceed by Justin Kinard, who also oversaw the eating contests. Attendees were given tickets to vote for their favorites for the People’s Choice awards.
The Pho King Cook-Off was the idea of Nu Huynh, executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance. She came up with the idea in September 2015 to add another event to help bolster CelebrAsian, the Alliance’s annual Asian and Pacific Islander food and cultural festival held each May.
“During the summer before, I wanted to do something around food that would attract a new audience,” Huynh said. “I had seen a restaurant on the West Coast that was called Pho King Good or something like that, and I loved it. I thought, ‘It’s Pho King fabulous. Let’s do this.’ And I’ve had a phenomenal response.”
Last year Pho King was held at Des Moines Social Club and ticket sales were capped at 250 people — and it sold out quickly. Huynh decided to double the size and move the contest to the Val Air Ballroom instead.
Here’s who has the best pho in Des Moines
Nguyen tasted all six versions of pho, along with Rona Berinobis, Michael LaValle, Roger Mellman and Carly Ross. The pho was served with only broth, noodles and meat — no garnishes or condiments. The five judges were blindfolded between each tasting. That way, they couldn’t see which chef made the pho.
The judges based scores on:
- Balance of spices
- Aroma of the broth
- Texture and doneness of the rice noodles and toppings
- Overall taste of each chef’s interpretation of traditional pho
“Each chef has their own variation of pho depending on the region they come from,” said Nguyen.
Six chefs entered their versions of pho into the contest, including two competitors — chefs Taylor Chung and Paul Huynh of Fu Manchung — who moved to Houston five years ago but came back to town to compete. Huynh made a vegan pho with vegetable broth.
Local participants were:
- Sam and Diem of Pho 888 Vietnamese, Chinese & Thai Restaurant - 1521 2nd Ave; (515) 288-1595
- Chef Zon of Café Su - 117 5th Street, West Des Moines; (515) 805-7123
- Chef Lau of Lucky Bamboo - 1555 SE Delaware Ave, Ankeny; (515) 965-5749
- Chef Don Cotran of Pho 515 - 801 University Ave; (515) 243-2434
Pho 515 won both Pho King Chef and Pho King People’s Choice by only half a point while Lucky Bamboo took first runner-up. Pho 515 made a variation of pho with lobster and crabmeat. Don Cotran accepted the winning trophies. It’s a family business located inside C Fresh Market at 801 University Ave.
“I’ve been managing the restaurant for three years and it improves day by day,” Cotran said. He hopes the restaurant will have another separate location in the future.
- Pho All Seasons - 1311 E Euclid Ave; (515) 330-1840
- Aroy-Dee - 2128 Indianola Ave; (515) 528-8009
- Rolling Wok Café - 1534 E Grand Ave E; (515) 266-3787
- Café Fuzion - 1240 E 14th St - (515) 262-8488
- T & T Vietnamese Restaurant - 3452 Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy; (515) 277-7790
- A Dong Restaurant - 1511 High St; (515) 284-5632
- Vietnam Café - Merle Hay Mall, 3800 Merle Hay Rd; (515) 252-8713
- Pho Vietnamese Cuisine - Kaleidoscope at the Hub, 555 Walnut St., Suite 307; (515) 339-6936
- Lemon Grass Restaurant - 1221 8th St West Des Moines; (515) 440-4709
- Pho 85 - 1701 SE Delaware Ave, Ankeny; (515) 964-2388
- H’s Pho - 286 US-6, Waukee; (515) 987-7571
Papaya salad sidekick
New to the competition this year was the Sidekick Competition dish: som tum. Som tum is a spicy Thai salad made with julienned green papaya, cherry tomatoes, peanuts and chilies with a powerful dressing made from garlic, dried shrimp and fish sauce.
Four entries vied for the title of Pho King Sidekick Trophy in a people’s choice vote. The winner was KoreanCopia, led by chef Ben Jung of Des Moines. Jung owns Ingersoll Wine & Spirits but hopes to own his own restaurant in the future. His som tum with ground peanuts was a big hit.
“My secret weapon was my mom,” Jung said. “She was here earlier, so she has yet to find out.”
Other Sidekick competitors were Chef Phin of Rolling Wok Café; Chefs Lori and Som Baccam of Aroy-Dee; and Chef Malay of Café Fuzion.
And you can make your own pho. Here’s how.
Pho is pronounced “fuh.” It’s a traditional soup-like Vietnamese dish that’s a combination of broth, rice noodles and meat. Garnished with herbs, lime and bean sprouts, it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s considered a comfort food, and some people swear by its healing powers as a hangover remedy.
“The broth is about 80 to 90 percent of deciding on the pho,” said celebrity judge Vinh Nguyen. Nguyen is the supervisor of the English Language Learner program for Des Moines schools and an advocate for the immigrant community. “The broth should be clear and not cloudy.”
Here’s my go-to recipe, but here's the hack. Pho broth is made from beef bones and tendon. They are boiled for 15 minutes in a large pot of water. After the 15 minutes are up, you dump out the entire pot. That's right. You dump out the entire pot of broth and start over after rinsing the bones and tendon under running water. This is the trick behind avoiding broth cloudiness. It's the easiest way to remove impurities.
The flavor of the broth comes mainly from the bones, but it becomes more aromatic with the addition of star anise, whole cloves and cinnamon sticks. “You toast your spice in a pan first,” Nguyen said. “Then you bundle it up (in cheesecloth) and add it to your broth.”
Then you add charred white onion and crushed ginger and simmer for six to eight hours on low heat, being careful not to boil the broth, During this time, cuts of meat can be poached in the broth until it’s tender, such as chuck, brisket and oxtail.
When to eat your pho
Pho broth is typically best eaten the next day. “What you do is turn the heat off and let it cool,” Nguyen said. “Then let the flavors sit and have time to work through the broth.” Nguyen recommends skimming the fat that comes to the top during cooling but leaving just a little bit to keep the flavor.
The next day, the broth is reheated and ladled over soaked rice noodles and thinly sliced meats such as brisket, meatballs, chuck steak and shank. Some chefs use chicken, pork or seafood. Even vegan versions of pho can be found.
What to put in your pho
Pho is served with a side of raw bean sprouts, fresh lime and fresh ngo gai leaves, or Vietnamese cilantro. But Nguyen is a purist.
“A true pho eater would not put anything into the pho before they taste the broth,” Nguyen said. He highly recommends slurping while eating pho, especially in public.