FALLS CHURCH, VIRGINIA - A traditional Vietnamese soup called pho is growing more popular in the United States.
The rising popularity of the savory, slow-cooked dish comes as U.S. President Barack Obama heads for a visit to Vietnam, which is bringing some new attention to the Vietnamese-American community in the United States.
Chef Pat Lee, owner of PhoNatic, a chain of Vietnamese restaurants in Austin, Texas, said pho may follow the path of Italian pizza, Mexican burritos and Japanese sushi, other ethnic foods that have become part of U.S. mainstream culture.
"In the next five to 10 years, you will see pho, or a variation of it, in many non-Vietnamese restaurants," Lee said.
The Institute for Immigration Research said there were 8,900 Vietnamese restaurants in the United States in 2014, and the number has been growing.
The owner of the Kobe House restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia, said making pho starts with 45 kilograms of bones and a huge pot, and takes all night.
Nguy Vu said it takes "12 hours, onion and the beef bone, the beef meat," as well as skill and care to make the soup.
When it is almost done,a carefully chosen collection of special spices is added to the bubbling cauldron, Nguy said. The exact blend of spices is handed down from family members over generations.
"Yeah, that’s a secret," he said.
Nguy said his sister worked closely with their mom to come up with the best pho recipe, using all natural ingredients and no shortcuts.'
Chef Lee said pho is very similar to BBQ. "Knowing the recipe doesn't ensure that the final product will turn out great."
Pho is served in a large bowl with light rice noodles, beef that has been cooled and sliced very thin, and vegetables.
At the table, customers add final spices and an array of condiments, including sauces that are sweet or hot.
Diner Ken Dao said the traditional dish has a lot of protein, "so I like it a lot."
As do many other people, restaurant customer Dylan Guyen said.
"One of the things I see is pho restaurants popping up everywhere, just like 7-11 (a popular convenience store)," Guyen said.
Restaurant critic Dave Cathey said flavor is key to the soup's popularity.
Cathey works for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City, which has a significant population of Vietnamese-Americans who appreciate the slow-food approach of pho.
"That's because when you cook low and slow you're pulling more flavor out of the ingredient, out of the bones," he said. "Those very rich nuanced flavors that we end up calling comfort food, that's what we associate with comfort for that soul-soothing warm feeling that you get."
The Kobe House restaurant is near Washington, in a shopping area that reminds Vietnamese-Americans of their former home. Vietnamese-American communities are also found in California, Texas, Oklahoma and other places.
The number of Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. has been growing rapidly as they serve a Vietnamese-American community of almost 2 million people along with increasing numbers of Americans from all ethnic backgrounds.