In the culinary universe, Vietnam and pho go hand in hand. The fragrant noodle soup is Vietnam’s edible masterpiece. Anthony Bourdain once said that he would “chuck a rusty butter knife across his best friend’s throat” for a bowl of pho.
The symphony of flavors starts with a bone broth infused with a plethora of spices, including star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and peppercorn. This cauldron of goodness is supplemented with homemade noodles, vegetables and a variety of cuts of meat. Its perfume-like aroma creates a heavenly steam cloud over your bowl. And because pho is served with chili paste, red peppers, garlic, coriander and mint leaves on the side, you can add personal touches to this national treasure.
Pho can be found all over the D.C. area, including Georgetown mainstay Miss Saigon on M Street and at the strip mall restaurants at Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia.
And, yes, after living in Vietnam for five months, I can easily say that I’ve eaten hundreds of bowls of absolute deliciousness
Recently, I discovered that, in addition to filling my hungry belly, I could also get a little tipsy in the head … from a pho- inspired cocktail.
The Unicorn Pub in Hanoi’s Old Quarter has concocted a showstopping tipple using the flavors of pho as inspiration. The quintessential spices are stepped into gin and Cointreau to bring the character of this delectable dish into a cocktail.
“We want to bring the culture to our customers,” says owner Trinh Xuan Dieu. “We want them to take a taste of Vietnam. The food is part of the culture. The drinks taste like the food and capture its essence.”
While infusing spices into liquor is nothing new, the way this is done at the Unicorn Pub is quite a spectacle.
First, a nearly three-foot-tall metal stand resembling a candleholder is brought out to the bar. It’s divided into three layers, each holding a cup of spices: anise, cinnamon and cardamom.
Next, bartender Khanh (one name only) brings out a pitcher of gin and Cointreau, which he heats with a torch, then sets on fire. Once the flames start, he pours the mixture through the first cup of spices and it trickles down to the second, then third and then into another pitcher.
As the liquid tumbles through each tier, a brilliant burst of blue flames is ignited while toasting the spices into the liquor. The fireworks continue as the liquid is passed through again and again, until the bar is permeated with the sweet-smelling scent of a pho stand.
The final mixture is strained and served over ice in a rocks glass. It’s topped off with a homemade sweet-and-sour mixture, garnished with a cinnamon stick and a whole toasted star anise and served with the traditional accompaniments (chili, coriander, lime).
My first sip is light and refreshing with a citrus twang, but then I am instructed by Khanh to submerge my straw deep into the “broth” mixture. I’m rewarded with a hearty soothing flavor that tingles my tongue with its titillating taste.
The Unicorn Pub also has a direct Washington connection. The pub marked the occasion of the recent Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi with a special “Rock it Man” cocktail. It was forged from bourbon to represent the U.S.A., soju in honor of North Korea and Fireball whiskey and bitters to represent the personalities of Kim and Trump.
Dieu, who had her fingernails custom- polished with flags of both nations, said she created the drink to wish them both luck.
Pho is not the only foodie cocktail on the menu. Other choices include the “O Mai,” inspired by a sweet tart treat, a sour clam drink and the bun cha cocktail, based on the pork dish Bourdain shared with then- President Obama in Hanoi in 2016.
After trying a few more drinks, including one named after Hanoi’s crazy traffic, I started to feel like I’d been hit by a taxi. This brought to mind another of Bourdain’s descriptions of pho, which could apply to either soup or cocktail: “A big bowl of pho will always make me happy and take me to that special place where everything is beautiful and nothing will hurt you.”