On a recent 23-degree afternoon in Columbus Park, bundled strangers sat elbow-to-elbow inside Vietnam Cafe, slurping big bowls of noodle soup.
Long before paleo bone broth and chef-made ramen were hot, Vietnam Cafe developed a following for its pho — soup made with rice noodles, meat, herbs and lots of broth. At Vietnam Cafe, 522 Campbell St., the broth packs a peppery punch and is strong enough to clear stuffy sinuses.
“It’s all about the broth,” says Vietnam Cafe regular Quyen Dam of Kansas City, who grew up going to Vietnamese restaurants in Atlanta and Montreal. “You could throw plain ol’ beef broth in a bowl and call it pho — and I think that’s done commonly — but it lacks complex flavors.”
That flavor comes from slow-simmered beef or chicken bones, plus a blend of aromatic spices that might include cinnamon, cloves, coriander or star anise. At Vietnam Cafe, a big bowl of beef pho costs $6.80 and comes with fresh cilantro, bean sprouts and sliced jalapeno on the side. Spicy types turn up the heat with a squiggle of bright red Sriracha.
Some of Kansas City’s best pho spots are family-owned and tucked away in shopping centers. To find them, we asked readers for suggestions on Twitter.
“Vietnam Cafe will rightfully top most lists,” replied pho fan Matt Enstrom of Leawood, “but I also really like Cafe Vie.”
Finding Cafe Vie can be tricky — it’s located on the back side of a shopping center at 10330 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park, near Oriental Supermarket and Tous les Jours, a Korean bakery.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Cafe Vie’s long cafeteria-style tables were packed with families dipping chopsticks and spoons into steaming bowls of broth. The open kitchen’s countertops were lined with plates piled high with bright green cilantro.
The chicken pho ($7.49 for a medium bowl) is perfect for newbies because it tastes like homemade chicken noodle soup. It’s loaded with shredded chicken and slivers of crunchy, sweet white onions. A generous sprinkle of black pepper adds extra flavor to the hot, lightly cloudy broth.
There’s more great pho four miles east of Cafe Vie, just across the state line, at Cafe Ha Tien, 1032 W. 103rd St. The casual but date night-worthy spot offers a full menu of Vietnamese specialties — lemongrass chicken, pan-fried Cornish hen — and at least nine kinds of noodle soup.
Regular Brandi Crawford of Kansas City rarely strays from H4, a seafood noodle soup ($11.59). The generous bowl of salty broth is swimming with silky rice noodles, crunchy slivers of bok choy and hunks of shrimp, scallops, squid and crab.
“I love their broth,” Crawford says. “It doesn’t have the overwhelming taste of basil that a lot of pho broths have.”
If you do like basil in your broth, head north to Bun Mee Phan, 4244 N. Oak Trafficway. There, the beef pho comes with big basil leaves on the side. Even without them, the broth overflows with flavor, and it’s loaded with tender chunks of sliced beef and succulent meatballs. If you can finish your bowl, you might consider a career in competitive eating.
Bun Mee Phan owner Kaylee Nguyen uses a family recipe to make pho, which was added to the menu by customer request. She also makes long doughnuts ($1) that regulars dip in their soup. Once you try the sweet and savory combo, you’ll wonder why you never tried dunking doughnuts in pho before.
Those willing to go further for great pho should consider road tripping to Little Saigon, 1524 W. 23rd St. in Lawrence.
The family-owned cafe located behind a dry cleaner and nail salon has a cult following in the college town. Owners Anna Cu and Steve Nguyen run the place themselves, and know many customers by name.
Little Saigon’s signature beef broth is made by boiling big bones for hours. It’s ladled into bowls with rice noodles, bean sprouts, fresh herbs and the customer’s choice of sliced beef, meatballs, tripe, tendon, seafood or chicken.
But it’s the broth that makes the pho slurp-worthy.
“Noodles, you can buy anywhere,” Cu says. “Meat, you can buy anywhere.”
“But broth?” she adds, “you can’t cheat on that.”