From within the rushing current of food, both traditional and new, occasionally a dish rides a wave to the surface: think about bacon’s everlasting moment—served with everything from chicken to chocolate—or the tuna tartare crest, during which every single restaurant in the universe seemed to have some form of raw tuna as an app. And, sheesh, burgers are just rolling ashore with no end in sight.
Lately, it seems that we are ankle deep in pho, the rich Vietnamese noodle dish known for its heady, hot broth that contrasts with the dash of fresh herbs and crunch of bean sprouts piled high on top. The origins of pho are as murky as its traditional beef broth, with many scholars leaning toward the French having their froggy fingers in the mix. When the French invaded in the late-1880s, they brought the tradition of eating beef with them, whereas the Vietnamese rarely slaughtered their cattle for food, instead using them to help work the fields.
The colonists also brought the comfort dish pot au feu to the Asian nation. A beef stew, the name means “pot on the fire,” a nod towards the hours it takes to create a truly dense beef broth. Pho is possibly a corruption of feu, making the dish a cultural remix that often results when two culinary worlds collide. Pho is a daily dish, eaten for any meal, and is a common street food hawked by vendors on corners all over the country.
On a side note, the beloved bahn mi is also the result of the French occupation—taking the baguette, mayonnaise, and liver pate from the French and filtering it through the Vietnamese flavor lens of rice flour, cilantro, daikon, and pickled veggies resulted in the ubiquitous sandwich.
After the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese people fled their homeland, bringing pho with them to all corners of the world, where it in turn took on new characteristics specific to each country.
For many years, pho was served mainly in Vietnamese immigrant communities. However, as tastes shifted and Americans especially began searching out culinary adventures in the ethnic communities of their hometowns and cities, pho surfed the current into an ocean of mass appeal.
Which brings us to today and the opening of 6-1-Pho in Clintonville. With the Chipotle concept being applied to practically every cuisine, this latest version is a create-as-you-go pho experience. For many pho fanatics, this is the moment that the dish jumped the shark, and for their obsessive palates, that may be the case. For others who have yet to take a dip into the broth-y sea, 6-1-Pho is a solid introduction and a gateway meal to more adventurous explorations of the Asian culinary diaspora.
6-1-Pho is a tight and clean space, with vegetal green as its accent color and a bright orange highlighting its punny name. An amusing chalkboard features drawings of a Vietnamese boat person and a street food scooter, as well as curlicues of local pride (Ohio Grown, We Love Clintonville) and proclamations of greatness (Caution! Pho is addictive; Genuine Recipes Handed Down for Generations). Bamboo sprouts from minimalist vases around the shop and large white orb lights hang above booths. It’s hipster sleek, with an industrial vibe made warmer by the hues of green.
We all know the assembly line setup by now, and at 6-1-Pho patrons can assemble three types of main dish bowls: brothy, noodly pho, the rice-based dish callled com, or the cold noodle salad, bun. Pick a protein, such as beef, chicken, meatballs, or tofu, and then go to town. The bahn mi sandwich gets the same treatment, with a veggie-soy-ham option as well. There are some side snacks—spring or egg rolls, pork or veg. Everything falls within the $5.75-$9.75 range. To keep it real, Vietnamese iced coffee is avialable, in addition to fountain sodas.
Does this bowl of pho or bite of bahn mi taste like that transcendent version in a small shop on a side street in some city’s Chinatown? No. Does it taste like the broth has been gurgling away for hours in a steamy kitchen? Not really. 6-1-Pho won’t blow the minds of pho connoisseurs, at least not yet, as the joint just opened. But that’s not what it’s here for.
What 6-1-Pho does is introduce a dish in an approachable way to people who might be nervous about going outside of their food comfort zone, and that’s just fine. Think of it as getting the local Pho-1-1 on a trendy dish with a vast and worldly history.