Pho, the great Vietnamese noodle soup so essential to our well-being in Houston, is nothing if not a have-it-your-way dish. Sit down at any pho shop in town and your first order of business is to choose among the various cuts of beef (and sometimes chicken) offered; then begins the ritual of customizing your bowl with fresh herbs, chiles, bean sprouts, lime wedges and condiments. The latest wrinkle in the city's pho-for-all is a luxurious option offered by Pho Binh by Night in Alief: a side order of extra-fatty beef broth afloat with wobbly islands of bone marrow.
Talk about rich. Spoon the glistening marrow broth and blobs of bone marrow into the combination pho of your choice (mine is number #9 on the menu, with flank and rare beef and glassy twists of tendon). Boom, your soup goes from sober to sumptuous. Ordinarily I love pho for its clean, brisk and ascetic charms. But pho with bone marrow stirred in practically shivers with wickedness, the creamy marrow conferring a softly gelatinous texture and a subtly nutty taste.
Squeezes of fresh lime juice, hot green chile wheels and twinges of Thai basil and culantro (a long-leafed, serrated species of coriander) all cut the fatty richness of the marrow. The marrow makes perfect sense in this context, since beef marrow bones traditionally are used to make the soup base for pho. Just consider the embellished form pho squared. Even with a soda-spritzed Vietnamese lemonade (soda chanh) you'll still get out the door for under $15, including the bone-marrow supplement.
Not bad for what is essentially the pho world's version of springing extra for foie gras -- and even better if you consider what bone-marrow service will cost you in a trendy restaurant these days. The magic is that the bone-marrow pho still manages to seem both light and health-giving, even while it's as primal and lush as can be. That's having it both ways.
Certain voluptuaries of my acquaintance have taken to bringing in bottles of esoteric craft beers for a BYOB bone-marrow pho feast. Pho Binh by Night may not be a fancy setting for such festivities, but it is relatively flossy, in a bright suburban mode, compared with Pho Binh's other locations -- particularly the wonderful and eccentric trailer compound that is the original Pho Binh on Beamer, in southeast Houston.
The family-owned Pho Binh trailer is my personal favorite both for its location on my end of town and its particularly fragrant, resonant broth. I wasn't nearly as taken with the basic broth at the family's Pho Binh by Night (it seemed flatter, and less aromatic), but once I stirred in the fatty marrow broth and doctored the soup to my specifications, I had to admit it was mighty fine stuff.
And I loved the fact that I could grab a bowl after midnight on the weekend. More traditional pho shops are busiest from breakfast through lunch, and they tend to close down early. The neon-lit Alief outpost of Pho Binh, in a newish shopping center on Bellaire, has adapted to Houston's culture (and more particularly, Houston's suburban Chinatown culture) by not even opening its doors until 4 p.m., so it's perfect for late-night club crawlers and folks winding up a night on the town.
The people watching was prime on a Saturday night, and while the service seemed distracted after an intial burst of activity, I felt right at home--even though I was the only non-Asian in the place, as well as the only diner feasting on bone marrow at that hour. I went home happy, with enough leftover pho to make breakfast.
(Pho Binh by Night, 12148 Bellaire Blvd., 832-351-2464. Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight; Friday & Saturday 4 p.m.-3 a.m.)