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Food Porn Friday: Pho real

Pho ga with quail eggs at Lilly's Cafe on Magazine St.

Pho ga with quail eggs at Lilly's Cafe on Magazine St.

As I've noted here in the past, my brother, Eric, loves pho. Actually, it's not really love -- love is more natural and harmonic. This could more appropriately be described as an obsession, a psychological tick that tells him if he doesn't get some of that hot Vietnamese noodle soup in him on a regular basis, his internal organs will shut down and cerebrospinal fluid will begin leaking from his ears, followed by a dramatic and painful death. It's serious.

If you're a pho-obsessive -- or "pho-natic," rather -- you could do worse than to live in New Orleans.  The Vietnamese population here is thriving, and with it, so too is the Vietnamese restaurant scene. What started on the West Bank and out in New Orleans East has invaded the rest of the city, from the hip streets of the Bywater to the white-gloved boutique shops on Magazine St. and all the way out to Metry.  If you're looking for a bowl of pho, a plate of bun or a banh mi sandwich (aka the "Vietnamese po-boy") in NOLA, you don't have to look very hard. Which, of course, is a good thing for everyone involved.

Over the past couple of years, Eric has been on a one-man personal campaign to sample the pho at every Vietnamese restaurant in the greater New Orleans area. His go-to is always pho tai, which incorporates rare steak, usually from the beef flank, though every now and again he'll switch things up and go with the pho nam (brisket). As the steaming bowl is set in front of him, the ritual begins: Add a squeeze of lime, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeños, and basil leaves, then squirt in enough Sriracha sauce to turn the broth a vibrant orange.

Then commences the eating, which Eric does with practiced, studied movements, each slurp of broth, bite of beef and mouthful of noodles accomplished with contemplative, almost robotic precision. By the end of the bowl, which he tilts to his face to ensure not a drop of soup escapes him, my brother is finally satisfied, even though his face is crimson and pouring sweat as though he'd been pacified with the kind of Mace they use on Grizzly bears. He's a red, sweaty mess, grinning ear to ear like a maniac.

When it comes to Asian noodle soups, my first and true love has always been Japanese ramen. Not that pho isn't perfectly lovely, but the heart wants what the heart wants. And, of course, my heart is in my belly. Recently, however, my opinion of pho has begun to change. It might be Eric's subtle influence, but more likely it's the fact that I have discovered pho ga: a rich chicken broth with rice noodles, chicken and onions. Essentially, pho ga is Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, something special to me and to pretty much anyone who's ever been home from school sick as a child (preferably watching The Price is Right). Chicken noodle is the penicillin of soups: restorative, comforting and essential.

My preferred pho ga these days is at Lilly's Cafe on Magazine St. in the Lower Garden District, which I like to doctor up a bit by adding quail eggs. It is a magical bowl of soup, perfect for just about any occasion. Cold out?  Pho ga will warm you. Hot out?  Spicing up your pho ga will make you sweat and, thus, cool you down. Bad day at work?  Pho ga, of course. Excellent day at work? Celebrate with pho ga! Hungover? Better get some pho ga in you, stat.

Lord, I'm starting to sound like my brother.

So, the question remains: Where's your favorite pho in NOLA?  (I'm pretty sure there are a few Eric still needs to cross off his list.)


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.