When Lien Le came to Oklahoma from Saigon in 1992, pho was what Philadelphia Phillies phans called opposing baseball teams in this country. Since then, we've learned that pho does not rhyme with foe but is pronounced somewhere between the start to the phe- in phenomenal and the fa in fa-la-la-la. We also know now that it's a friend in the battle against cold weather as mighty as chili or stew. It's also a fresh new word for the pun and games of the self-proclaimed whimsical. (Many restaurants - local eateries Pho Ever, Pho Bulous and Pho Nomenal among them - have had fun with their names.) In reality, pho is the Vietnamese answer to beef-noodle soup. But back in Vietnam, Le says it's something more. "It's like Taco Bell or something," she said, trying to describe its omnipresence on the streets of Saigon. The owner of Pho Lien Hoa, 903 NW 23, came from Southeast Asia with a restaurant background. She and her husband spent years working for others in restaurants when they arrived, then 10 years ago they purchased what was then called Pho Hoa. "We changed the name about a year ago," she said. Whatever you call it or however you pronounce it, pho is beef and noodle soup for the bold. Beefy soup bones are slow-cooked overnight to produce the base. The resulting broth is poured into a bowl of rice noodles and served with wafer-thin slices of raw beef on the side. Diners toss the beef into the broth, where it cooks almost instantly. Also on the side is a platter of Vietnamese basil; sawleaf herb, which has an aroma that strongly resembles cilantro; bean sprouts; thin-sliced fresh jalapeno peppers; and lime wedges for a final squirt - all used at each diner's discretion. Sriracha chile sauce and Hoisin sauce are also optional for one last flourish of spicy and sweet. The result is a soup with a rich, beefy foundation balanced by the addition of fresh herbs and vegetables. The rice noodles offer body and absorb the bold flavors. Le's daughter-in-law, Ngoc Dinh, works at Pho Lien Hoa, learning the business as she and her husband prepare to carry on the tradition. Born in Malaysia but raised in Oklahoma, she says she never tires of pho. "I like them all," she said. "There's so many ways you can eat it, it's always a little different." While pho is to Vietnamese soup as Coca-Cola is to soda pop, Pho Lien Hoa actually offers a variety of soups: Hu Tieu contains roasted pork and clear noodles; Bun is vermicelli and cellophane glass noodles; and Banh Canh is pork and udon noodles. Dinh also said it's not uncommon for experienced diners to request certain combinations of ingredients, choosing from flank steak, brisket, tendon meat, tripe, shrimp, quail eggs, crab, fish balls, mussel, red cabbage and squid. If there's a beef description you don't recognize, simply check the east wall where a beef map hangs, bearing the Vietnamese terms for each cut. Each bowl of soup also comes with a shrimp cracker. Pho Lien Hoa serves fresh spring rolls and fried egg rolls. They also offer several smoothies, from jackfruit to avocado to strawberry; tapioca bubbles are optional. Pho Lien Hoa certainly isn't the only purveyor of this hot, exotic soup, but it's certainly one of the most established. For now, Le only has the one location, but expansion is in the works. "Maybe two more years," she said before explaining that her children would have to run any new restaurants, and right now, they're too young to give up their freedom. "Once it opens, they can't go anywhere anymore, like me." Pho Lien Hoa is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Find, rate and review more Oklahoma City restaurants on Wimgo.com
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