Rare-as-you-dare sirloin meets the beefiest of exotically spiced broths. This spicy Pho Bo is fired up by Thai bird’s eye chilies and served with rice noodles, mushrooms, and scallions, Pho Bo is prepared super slow and hyper quick. It’s heaven in a bowl for serious beef lovers.
It takes time to be this good. And with our spicy Pho Bo, time is the critical ingredient that emphasizes everything that is wonderful about good beef.
One of those wonders is that very different cuts of beef are at their flavorful best when cooked in very different ways. Our Pho Bo starts with oxtail and beef shin (a.k.a. beef shank), bones and all. When cooked long and slow, these two cuts are rightly prized for the fullness of their strong, rich flavors.
In complete contrast, Pho Bo ends with thinly sliced, juicily pink, sirloin steak that — in comparison to its companions — hardly gets any cooking at all.
Give yourself the precious gift of time
To make the essential, intensely beefy broth, the shin and oxtail will need six — yep, six — hours of gentle simmering in plenty of salted water with onion, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, and a little lemon juice.
There’s very little prep needed here. You just peel and roughly chop the onions, garlic, and ginger — that’s it. All the important, flavor-creating work is done for you by low heat, a big pot, and lots of time. And it does need to be a big pot — one that will easily hold the shin, oxtail, and three quarts of water.
You’ll find that those six hours of passive cooking are time incredibly well spent. You’ll be rewarded with an exceptional complexity of aromas and flavors in a broth that’s easily good enough to eat on its own with chunks of crusty bread. I’ve really enjoyed doing that.
Choosing your beef
For the spicy Pho Bo’s foundational broth, our recipe uses two parts oxtail to one part shin. They both deliver huge, big-beef flavor. But the oxtail brings an extra, collagen-boosted bonus that adds a slightly gelatinous, silky texture to your broth. And that’s just grand.
For both these cuts, look for dark, burgundy-colored flesh with fat and connective tissue that’s a very pale, creamy yellow. Go for a mixture of diameters in the sections of oxtail you choose.
The slices of shin should be about 3/4 inch thick with marrow-filled bone centers that are about a third of each slice’s size.
As for the sirloin, well, to serve four beef fans, you’ll want an eight-ounce, inch-thick, aged steak with about 1/3 inch of fat running down one side. You need high-class sirloin because, in our recipe, it’s going to be sliced very thin and added very rare to the hot broth. A good steak can handle that, an average one, well, not so much.
My top tip for the beef? Spend some time at your trusted butcher, be clear about what you want, and then be guided by the advice that good butchers love to give.
With Pho Bo, fast, hot serving is very much part of the cooking
Very warm, deep soup bowls and piping hot broth — and I mean piping hot — are an integral part of a Pho Bo’s final, simple preparations.
Here’s why. First, the broth’s heat in those warmed bowls adds the finishing touch to the thinly sliced sirloin after it’s been rubbed with a little dark soy and very swiftly seared in a seriously hot pan.
Second, the slightly softening hot broth pulls flavor from the chili, scallions, mushrooms, and fresh cilantro as they’re added to each person’s bowls moments before serving.
In comparison to the super slow broth, this cook-in-the-bowls process all happens in the blink of an eye. For me, those last few minutes of assembling each bowl are another of Pho Bo’s many pleasures — it means the waiting is very nearly over and the enjoyment of eating is about to begin.
Spicy Pho Bo
For the beefy broth
- 2 pounds jointed oxtail bones and all
- 1 pound beef shin bone-in, also known as beef shank
- 2 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon ground sea salt
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 medium-sized yellow onions peeled and roughly chopped
- 8 cloves garlic peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 heaped tablespoon fresh ginger peeled and roughly chopped, skin and all
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 stick cinnamon about 3 inches long
- 2 stalks lemongrass each about 4 inches long, slightly crushed. I give each piece a few blows with a heavy sharpening steel to slightly splinter the stalks
- 8 cloves
- 6 star anise
- 6 green cardamom pods
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
For the final cooking / serving
- 4 red Thai bird’s eye chilies thinly sliced crosswise
- 1 8- ounce sirloin steak – well-fatted 28 days aged, free range/grass fed would be my choice
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce I just love the mushroom-flavored variety
- 1/4 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 2 medium-sized brown mushrooms thinly sliced
- 1/2 ounce fresh cilantro Remove the thickest of the stalks and roughly chop the rest
- 2 spring onions / scallions Cut on the diagonal into ¾ inch long slices. Use all the green leaves that are crisply firm.
- 2 medium-sized fresh limes quartered
- 8 ounces dried, flat rice noodles The ones I used were 5mm wide – almost a ¼ inches
For the beefy broth
- Add all the broth’s ingredients to a big pot. Set it on a high heat and let it come to a brisk boil. Now drop the heat to very low, cover the pot and let it simmer very gently for six hours. Check it a few times to make sure you keep that constant gentle simmer going all the time.
- Now, some recipes call for skimming off the fat and the whitish sort of foam that rises to the top of the broth. Well, if you want a clearer broth you can do that. Not me. I’m not trying to make beef consommé here. I want all — and I mean all — the flavor from the oxtail and shin, so I certainly don’t skim off any fat. As for the foamy stuff, I just stir it back into the broth a few times during its long simmering.
- After six hours’, remove the pot from the heat. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pieces of oxtail and the shin together with its central bones that may well have completely separated from the meat. Set all this aside to cool. Now remove and discard the lemongrass stalks, star anise, and cinnamon sticks.
- Once the beef is cool enough to handle, use your fingers to pull all the meat and any fatty bits from the oxtail and shin bones — discard the bones. Now use your fingers to shred apart all the beef before returning it to the broth. Check the broth for saltiness and adjust to your taste. Done. Broth finished. Time to get everything else moving briskly along.
For the sirloin steak – at room temperature, please
- Put a heavy skillet onto high heat. Add nothing to the skillet. Whilst it’s getting really hot, pat the sirloin dry with some kitchen towel and then smear it all over with a level teaspoon dark soy sauce — just a teaspoon. Now rub 1/4 level teaspoon salt into the steak’s strip of fat. Good. It’s ready for that hot skillet — immediately.
- You want to take some care with how you now sear the sirloin on that high heat. Using a pair of tongs to hold the steak, place it fat side down into the skillet. Keep the steak upright with the tongs for 90 seconds so that you get a dark, melting char on the fat. Now lay the steak flat and give one side 60 seconds of that high heat. Quicky flip the steak and give the other side 60 seconds of searing heat. Done! Set the steak aside to cool.
For the flat rice noodles
- Check the cooking instructions on the pack — you’ll probably find they say something like this: Set the noodles in a pan that’s big enough to let them lie flat. Pour in enough boiling water to just cover the noodles and let them soak for about six minutes before draining them in a colander.
Bringing it all together – quickly
- Heat your bowls to a point where you can just handle them without a cloth — and keep them that hot. Good. Things now have to happen quickly as you move towards serving.
- Ideally, you want to finish preparing your spicy Pho Bo whilst the noodles are soaking for their six or so minutes. That way the just-drained noodles will still be hot when they go into the bowls.
- So, as soon as the noodles start soaking, set the broth to boil on a high heat. When it does, drop the heat so that the broth just barely simmers.
- Slice the seared sirloin crosswise through its width. Each very rare slice should be close to 1/8 inch thick.
- Now ladle the hot, meaty broth into those very warm bowls, filling them 3/4 full. And do make sure you get a generous amount of the fab shredded oxtail and shin into each bowl. Time now for some quick, good-looking presentation.
- Begin by sliding a serving of noodles into each bowl — taking care to keep them to one side and not allowing them to become fully covered by the broth.
- Add a serving of the sirloin to each bowl’s center, letting each slice just sit on top of the hot broth. In the same careful way, add the mushrooms, scallions, and cilantro to the remaining, uncovered broth.
- Final step? Sprinkle on those Thai bird’s eye chilies.
- Serve at once with the quartered limes alongside so that each person can squeeze over their own bowl — highly recommended.