If you're out and about around UPenn on a Monday evening and suddenly catch a whiff of deep, fragrant pho broth — cracked clove, star anise, the whole lot — follow your nose. If your olfactory game is strong, there's a chance your nostrils will lead you to an unmarked student dorm room that serves as HQ for Pho King, the cheeky name a quartet of Quaker undergrads have given their guerrilla Vietnamese beef noodle soup operation.
"The Four Amigos," as they like to be called, wish to remain anonymous, but I was able to get a bit of information out of them regarding the origins of their underground soup-slanging business. At least two of the Amigos are Vietnamese by heritage. They got together to perfect a pho recipe — always a painstakingly crafted clear beef broth, gently flavored with stuff like the aforementioned aromatics, then hit with rice noodles and meat — after deciding that a solid bowl of the universally loved Viet specialty was hard to find close to campus. "We realized how completely feasible it was to sell pho to hungry college students in the middle of the night," says the head chef and chief broth tender, known only as "Amigo 1."
The group, which just started Pho King in the first week of February, spends an entire day prepping $5 portions of soup in an apartment kitchen, which they then distribute out of an undisclosed location ("You have to ask one of us, or ask your friends") on Monday nights. Word spread fast thanks to Facebook and the Penn student blog Under the Button, which trumpeted their arrival with the headline "No Pho'King Way."
Pho King does two renditions of soup — one with meatballs and eye round steak, the other with shredded chicken breast — and fiends can top their purchases with the traditional fresh-plucked cilantro and Thai basil. But the lot of these rice-noodle ninjas agree that you're nothing without a solid broth. The recipe for that building block originates with Amigo 1's mother. "Most pho restaurants in Philly 'cheat' a bit by enhancing their broth's flavor with lots of MSG," says Amigo 1, referring to the synthetic sodium additive. " We [have] decided not to use MSG in our cooking. All of our ingredients are healthy and fresh."
The pho-some foursome aren't sure whether UPenn's administration frowns upon their surreptitious business model, but I'd guess they'd be hard-pressed to bring down the hammer after hearing what the overall aim of this pursuit is. "Our official goal, which came about after we decided to start this," says Amigo 1, "is to raise enough money to go to Disney World for spring break, to fulfill our childhood dreams."
Disney World, y'all. Who could be Pho King angry at that?