Once upon a time, food writers sat on tufted banquettes, gripping silver-plated forks and sipping wine from Spiegelau glasses.
Now when they eat out, if they eat out at all, they’re more likely to find themselves perched on the curb alongside a shuttered barbecue shack trying to negotiate noodle soup out of a deli container with disposable chopsticks and a plastic spoon.
At least that’s where I found myself on a recent Monday in Myrtle Beach, which in just six years has gone from having no Vietnamese restaurants to boasting three standout pho houses within 1 square mile. Did I mention it was pouring?
By all objective measures, that was a wretched dining experience. But this is why food stories aren’t written with slide rules. The beef-rich pho was so congruous and warm that even slurping in the storm felt restorative.
You can typically look at a calendar to figure out when restorative broth season ends. Around the time that the sun starts coming up sooner and people are checking their closets for St. Patrick’s Day green, cravings shift. This year, the need for curatives probably won’t come to an abrupt stop.
What is clear from the calendar is that Friday is Tet, or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Eating pho is not a Tet tradition. The holiday is more commonly associated with rice cakes and candied fruit. But for many celebrants, Tet means a pilgrimage, making it an arguably auspicious time to visit Myrtle Beach’s Vietnamese restaurants.
Each of the restaurants has its own character and pho philosophy. What unites them is a professional trajectory. In all three cases, their owners had been in the restaurant business for a long time before they felt comfortable serving Vietnamese food. They sold Chinese or Japanese food, because lo mein and hibachi were considered more acceptable to American-born eaters.
Now, though, pho is becoming familiar stateside. And Saigon Café, Pho Claire and Vietnam House are giving it a powerful push in that direction.
While pho might merit a road trip in coastal South Carolina, there are plenty of U.S. cities in which the nearest bowl is never more than a block or two away.
Part of what makes pho enticing is its idiosyncrasy. A cook who shies away from cinnamon is going to produce a very different dish than a cook who prides herself on using cinnamon and star anise in equal measure. There are countless choices to be made about ginger, mint, chiles and cloves.
Even still, there is a somewhat standard flavor to pho made for the takeout trade, which is worlds removed from what you’d have for breakfast in Hanoi. There are no doubt bases and seasoning mixes involved, but whatever the reason, former residents of pho-dense regions will instantly recognize Vietnam House’s noodle soup as the quintessential to-go bowl.
At Vietnam House, the hazy broth is bracketed by a slight oniony sweetness, but its primary flavor is a casual earthiness that invites garnish. It’s presented with the usual collection of Thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapeno rings and lime wedges, all respectably fresh in their Styrofoam box.
Dan Lin opened Vietnam House in 2015 after learning pho techniques from a Vietnamese chef. He previously owned Chinese restaurants but sensed there was growing demand for pho and vermicelli bowls.
Lin hedged his bet by putting 71 Chinese-American dishes on the menu, ranging from chicken egg foo young to shrimp with broccoli, but pho is pictured on the cover. His daughter Sandy Wang said it’s the restaurant’s top seller.
Wang doubts increased competition will hurt Vietnam House’s sales. “Our customers have told us they like our place the best,” she said.
Vietnam House, 619 Broadway St., Myrtle Beach, 843-712-2030. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat.; noon-10 p.m., Sun.
Pho Claire will mark its second anniversary this month, but it’s hard to square the airy, light-filled restaurant with aging. Owner Anthony Nguyen said his family’s aim in designing Pho Claire’s dining room and menu was to convey the “bright, clean, healthy” aspects of Vietnamese cuisine.
Nguyen said that message has found a receptive audience.
“I guess a lot of people are still thinking about health, which is good,” he said.
For people whose thoughts about health include not taking the risk of dining indoors, Pho Claire’s approach to cooking is apparent from its broth, which is startlingly clear. In fact, it’s so elegant and refined that it feels wrong to subject it to roughhousing with sriracha. It takes just a swift press of lime to awaken the soup and activate its carefully selected aromatics.
“It’s really light,” Nguyen said, adding that even if they’d wanted to replicate the funkiness of some phos ladled out in Vietnam, their flavor spectrum is constrained by the kinds of beef cattle raised for slaughter in the U.S.
Prior to settling in Myrtle Beach, Nguyen’s family lived in New York, California, Missouri and Pennsylvania. He said they wanted to open a Vietnamese restaurant as soon as they moved to South Carolina, but weren’t sure if the area’s diners were ready for it. They opened a Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar instead.
“After eight years, we said, ‘Let’s bring our traditional Vietnamese food out and give them a little bit of knowledge’,” Nguyen said.
It worked out just as they hoped. Every day at Pho Claire, someone walks in and asks a server to describe pho. Every day at Pho Claire, someone who’s just learned pho’s definition says he or she would like to try it.
Pho Claire, 1201 38th Ave., Myrtle Beach, 843-839-3889, phoclaire.com, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., daily.
Vinh Lam’s pho is so good that it was initially a liability for Saigon Café.
When Saigon Café opened in 2018, the restaurant would sell out of soup before lunch was over. Since it takes 12 hours to make pho, Lam’s son Peter had to send away any customers who arrived after the pot was emptied.
“He’s been working for 14 years to master his pho recipe, and he never rushes it,” Peter Lam said. “I’ve attempted it to where I try to find a shortcut, but you have to let the broth simmer.”
Still, even limited availability represented an improvement. Before Lam opened Saigon Café, he cooked at a Japanese restaurant. The owners gave him the go-ahead to serve pho, but only on weekends. Otherwise, if people wanted to sample Lam’s pho, they had to hire him to cater their events.
Now that Saigon Café can better predict traffic patterns, customers at any hour can get a bowl of pho distinguished by woodsy herbs and a complex layering of baking spices.
Customers come from a range of backgrounds. There are Vietnamese immigrants, who sometimes get frustrated with servers who don’t understand their native language (Peter Lam has been spending more time on the floor to pacify them.) There are Latino immigrants, who are keen to order extra tripe and extra tendons with their pho.
And occasionally, an elderly White man enters the restaurant, asking for fish sauce in perfect Vietnamese.
“It threw me off,” admitted Peter Lam, who ushered his father out of the kitchen to sit with the Vietnam War veteran.
When first-timers come to Saigon Café, Lam recommends the pho tai, perhaps the most approachable pho for eaters reared on an American diet: Its featured meat is thinly-sliced round steak.
But in addition to pho, Lam also makes bun bo Hue, a spicy beef soup with broad rice noodles.
He deleted pig’s feet from his recipe after noticing few people were eating them and hasn’t braved tossing in the coagulated blood cubes that experienced bun fans anticipate. Yet his rendition, quivering with umami and scented with lemongrass, is stellar.
Pho is the place to start. But Lam’s bun shows why it might be the next Vietnamese soup for South Carolinians to discover.
Saigon Café, 1943A Mr. Joe White Ave., Myrtle Beach, 843-839-0334, facebook.com/SaigonCafeMB, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., daily.