The Great Seattle Pho Census

A project takes phonaticism to wildly wonky heights.

Books and covers may inhabit totally separate spheres, but an experienced diner usually can capably assess a restaurant from its exterior. If there's a vinyl banner advertising ladies'-night shots, it's probably not the best place to ask for a wine list. If the nameplate is brass and smaller than a bread box, there are probably foie gras and scallops within.

But not every restaurant is so easily deciphered. It's impossible to tell from the street whether a pho joint is serving a brilliantly balanced broth or a watery soup that's never seen a beef bone. Many eaters respond to such uncertainty by visiting and revisiting the same pho restaurant, allowing the hundreds of local pho joints they don't know to recede into the urban landscape. That approach is understandable, since it would take months for an individual eater to systematically evaluate every pho joint in the county. But a team of pho lovers could accomplish the same task fairly expeditiously, which is just what we here at Voracious are proposing to do.

This month marks the kickoff of The Pho File, an ambitious effort to catalog every pho joint in King County. We've partnered with the Seattle Pho-Natics, a club for pho devotees, to send "census takers" to more than 200 restaurants. Our goal is not to criticize the pho we find, but to objectively document it: Participants will be sent into the field with survey forms prompting them to record everything from the color of the pho to the type of music playing in the dining room. They'll note which joints offer melted fat, and which serve lemons instead of limes. They'll measure their pho bowls and count seats. And, most important, they'll encourage restaurant owners to contribute to the project by answering a questionnaire about their background and pho philosophy.

Our goal is to recognize and celebrate the immigrant cooks and entrepreneurs behind the restaurants which all too frequently blend into the background of our daily lives. But we and the Pho-Natics could use your help. We hope you'll consider registering as a census taker. To obtain a pho joint assignment and all the materials you'll need for a Pho File submission, please e-mail me at That address also works if you've got questions.

We're tremendously excited about this project, and look forward to sharing the results—and all the slurping we'll be doing along the way.


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