Story by ROBIN DAVIS l Photos by JODI MILLER

Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup with quite a loyal following. But ordering--and eating--this soul-warming stuff can be intimidating for the uninitiated.

First, there's the name. Pho is pronounced "fuh"--not like "phone" without the "ne." Then there's the complex assortment of condiments that come with it, from peppery Thai basil to fiery Sriracha hot sauce. They make the soup infinitely customizable, but can also make things confusing for first-timers unsure of what and how much to add.

For a primer on the soup, I turned to Thang Nguyen of Lac Viet on Bethel Road.

Nguyen makes pho broth from scratch, babying it as the bones simmer for hours in his 60-gallon kettle.

At many restaurants, customers can choose from toppings including thin slices of rare beef or well-done beef, tripe and tendon.

Nguyen serves his only with rare beef or meatballs. The real proof, he says, is in the broth. "If the broth is good enough, you don't need all that."

Diners are served a huge bowl with rice noodles, green onions, cilantro and meat, all topped with a generous portion of that fragrant broth.

Alongside comes a plate with sprouts, basil, lime and jalapeno slices. Most restaurants offer bottles of Sriracha and hoisin on the table.

That's when the fun starts.

"Most dishes, you can't do so much with, just salt and pepper," Nguyen said. "Pho is fully customizable. It's limitless."

Step-by-step guide to pho

Making it

1. Beef bones are slowly simmered in water to make broth.

2. Lightly grilled onions and garlic are added several hours into the simmering process.

3. Spices like star anise, cardamom and whole peppercorns are added a couple of hours before the broth is done. At the very end, the broth is seasoned with salt.

4. To serve, cooked rice noodles are placed in the bowl, topped with meat (such as raw beef, lamb or chicken) and then cilantro and green onions. Broth is poured over top.

5. Garnishes (bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, basil, hot sauces) are served on the side.

Eating it

1. Sip the broth first before deciding which, if any, condiments to add. Nguyen eats it with just some jalapeno slices for heat.

2. Season as you go. Many people start adding condiments when they're about halfway finished. A squeeze of lime, maybe, and then squirts of hoisin and Sriracha when just a few noodles and a splash of broth remains.

3. The best way to eat this mammoth bowl of goodness is with two hands, says Nguyen. Use your dominant hand to pick up a few noodles with chopsticks or a fork. Get those to your mouth then follow it with a spoonful of broth from a spoon in the other hand.

Where to find it

Some of the local restaurants serving pho:

Buckeye Pho, 761 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side Huong Vietnamese Restaurant, 1270 Morse Rd., North Side Indochine Cafe, 561 S. Hamilton Rd., Whitehall Lac Viet, 1506 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side Lan Viet, 59 Spruce St., North Market Mi Li Cafe, 5858 Emporium Square, North Side Pho Asian Noodle House, 1288 W. Lane Ave., Upper Arlington Pho Saigon inside Asian Grocery, 5644 Columbus Square, North Side Saigon Palace, 114 N. Front St., Downtown

Pho Vocabulary
Pho ba = beef noodle soup
Pho ga = chicken noodle soup
Pho cuu = lamb noodle soup