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It’s always soup season – where to find Salt Lake’s best pho, ramen, and more

One More Noodle House - braised beef noodles (Brandon Luong)

Don’t you hate it when you’re just trying to find some quick info online and the article you find begins with the author’s entire life story — forcing you to scroll through thousands of words before you reach anything you actually care about? That’s the pho king worst. Anyways, here’s the story of how all this noodle shenanigans began.

It’s November 28th, 2022. Days are shortening and temperatures are dropping. I grimace as I watch the snow fall outside the window of my work building. I don’t want to go home. Only culinary pain and suffering awaits. Returning home means having a turkey burrito for the fourth consecutive night. Because of a misunderstanding, my family’s Thanksgiving was blessed with three entire turkeys. I was the lucky one to take the leftovers home where I meal prepped it all into burritos — one for each day for the rest of my life.

I imagine unwrapping the tin foil off my frozen turkey burrito. It feels like opening the worst gift imaginable. Dry. So incredibly dry. I can’t bare to eat another desiccated burrito of untold misery.

It’s cold and I need soup. I worded that very intentionally. I don’t want soup, I NEED soup. Pho is going to be my dinner — not some dry excuse for a burrito. Where’s the best place to get pho anyways? That list I made in 2021 is outdated. Wait. I should update the pho list! This is the perfect excuse to escape the hole I dug for myself!

And with that, I drove through the snow to the first of over 45 pho restaurants over a period of a month and a half. Here’s the graph that resulted.

Pho graph final (Brandon Luong)
Pho graph final (Brandon Luong)

The X-axis is an arbitrary scale of where I’d personally rank each restaurant relative to the rest, towards the right are my most favorite bowls and towards the left are my least favorite. The Y-axis indicates flavor profile. In terms of flavor, I’ve found that pho broth tends to be either beefy or heavier on the spices — namely star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and black cardamom. Beefy or spiced isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other, it all comes down to preference.

Oh yeah, and I did tonkotsu ramen too.

Ramen graph (Brandon Luong)
Ramen graph (Brandon Luong)

Similar to the pho graph, the X-axis describes where I’d ranked each bowl relative to each other. For the Y-axis, I went with a different approach. I wanted an objective measurement that couldn’t be influenced by my own bias. Meticulous chefs in Japan will measure the refractivity of their broths for gelatin content. I measured each broth after it’s been seasoned with tare, meaning I’m also measuring the relative levels of salt and other flavor compounds.

A Japanese refractometer designed specifically for ramen broth (Brandon Luong)
A Japanese refractometer designed specifically for ramen broth (Brandon Luong)

The more solutes dissolved into water, the more light will refract through it. This can be measured and extrapolated into a value of total “stuff” in a broth. Refractivity measures anything that dissolves into water — gelatin, salt, and any other flavor molecules. The refractometer I use measures in Brix, which is usually meant to measure sugar in wines or juices. To avoid confusion, I’ve instead denoted this measurement as the “Pho Quantitative Yumminess Unit”, or Pho QYU for short.

Unsurprisingly, the most flavorful/salty broths registered high in Pho QYU while the more subtle broths scored lower. For example, Jinya’s broth is high in Pho QYU — an umami bomb in your face, very salty. Whereas Oishi ramen’s broth was mild, much more toned down — it measured more than three times lower in Pho QYU compared to Jinya. Intensity of flavor is preferential, high Pho QYU does NOT necessarily mean a better bowl.

In regards to the gel test, I could write an entire article on just this subject. Check out the IG post I made for a simple explanation. Simply put, a broth that gels under refrigerated temperatures indicates that the broth was made properly and traditionally. Ramen broth is typically made from bones. Gelling is caused by an adequate amount of gelatin, which is slowly released from collagen in bones that are boiled for long periods of time. For tonkotsu ramen, failing the gel test is a red flag. The white hue of tonkotsu comes from pork fat emulsifing with gelatin as a surfactant. When tonkotsu is white and does not gel, it almost certainly means the broth is artificial — made from a soup base, a powder or concentrate that the restaurant just adds water to. Sushi restaurants are notorious for preparing ramen this way and unfortunately, it seems about half the ramen restaurants in SLC do the same.

At refrigerated temperatures, legit tonkotsu broth will gel (Brandon Luong)
At refrigerated temperatures, legit tonkotsu broth will gel (Brandon Luong)

Passing the gel test doesn’t necessarily mean the broth is tasty either. It’s just one part of the puzzle. It’s very possible to use traditional recipes and techniques poorly. Anyways, lets get into it. My personal recommendations for noodle soups in Salt Lake for 2024!

Pho

Utah isn’t known as a destination for Asian food, but given our population size I believe our pho scene is something to be proud of. Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup composed of rice noodles and almost always either a beef or chicken broth, though beef is much more common. It’s light and delicate, almost restorative. The type of pho that’s typically found in the US is heavily based on the Southern Vietnamese version, also known as pho nam or pho Saigon — known for thin noodles and a slightly sweeter broth accompanied with a myriad of condiments.

Pho-n fact: I’ve found that people assume that pho is a deeply traditional dish with centuries worth of history. The fact is, pho is barely a hundred years old! Pho as we know it didn’t even exist until my paternal grandfather was in his thirties. Granted, he was incredibly old, but my point is this — the version of pho that we know today only came into being around the late 1950’s after it was popularized in the South by migrating Northerners following the 1954 Geneva Conference. Pho, like ramen, is a very young dish with a short yet tumultuous history.

Pho 777 - pho tai chin, Pho 777 is one of the few places to serve culantro (Brandon Luong)
Pho 777 – pho tai chin, Pho 777 is one of the few places to serve culantro (Brandon Luong)

Pho 777 – herbal spiced seasoning, large menu with solid dishes

The official winner of the Pho King Souper Bowl 2023! Heavy on seasonings, this broth tastes much more herbal than typical bowls. Expect the usual star anise and cinnamon flavors, but black cardamom is also a distinct note. The flavor is so distinct that there’s times when I crave 777 and only 777. The kitchen uses quality ingredients that gives their pho a unique taste. Consistency is one of the most difficult aspects for a restaurant to maintain. I can vouch that Pho 777’s bowl has tasted just as great time after time.

Pho 777 - banh mi bo kho
Pho 777 – banh mi bo kho

Something uncommon for a pho restaurant is for more than two or three dishes to shine. Pho 777 is the exception. In my book, Pho 777 is easily the best overall Vietnamese restaurant in Utah. Try the roasted chicken tomato rice, banh mi bo kho (beef stew with bread), cha gio (fried summer roll), and chicken lettuce wraps! Pho 777 relocated in spring 2023. Their new place is comfortable, well lit, and spacious enough to accommodate a crowd. And believe me, it can get busy. Watch out for their house-made chili oil! It’s potent stuff and also available for purchase in the restaurant. [pho777utah.com]

Pho 33 - two medium bowls and a small (Brandon Luong)
Pho 33 – two medium bowls and a small (Brandon Luong)

Pho 33 – savory beef broth, mild sweetness

Compared to Pho 777, the bowl at 33 is light on spices. The broth is meaty and a bit on the sweeter side. Pho 33 was my vote for the best in Utah, but they can be inconsistent. When it’s good? Oh man — It’s outstanding. The broth tastes like how receiving a hug feels. There’s a wide variety of meats to choose from. The portion sizes can be described as “cray cray”. I love pho as much as the next guy, but a small is a full meal for me. The value is insane, they should really start charging more. [pho33utah.com]

The Pearl – trendy vibe, chicken broth topped with weekly specials

An outlier in SLC’s pho scene. The atmosphere is trendy, definitely somewhere my parents would feel out of place in. The Pearl is a bar (21+) that only serves pho on Sunday evenings. The broth is chicken based — this is very nostalgic to me, it’s my mom’s go‑to pho style. Lighter in flavor than beef broth, I feel like it gives way to their heavier toppings like pork belly and whatever else they decide to serve for the week. The vibe is trendy and prices are higher than average. I strongly recommend the ca phe cocktail and visiting for their regular menu. The banh mi and fish were the most memorable to me. Chili oil is available on request — it’s among the best in the state and at the time of writing, is available by the jar! [thepearl.bar]

Pho Thin – Northern style sides, solid technique

Claiming to have ties to the famous Pho Thin in Hanoi, this place is legit. Their broth passes the gel test! They relocated from their Sugar House location to share a space with their sister restaurant, Saola. They offer Northern style sides like vinegar onions and Chinese donut sticks to dip. I recommend getting the sautéed beef pho, it’s what the restaurant in Hanoi is known for. I’m also in love with their chicken curry. It’s pretty much the Vietnamese version of Thai yellow curry — make sure to get it with a baguette! Dip the bread into the curry and thank me later. Prices are higher and hours are atypical. [phothinslc.com]

Pho 9 – best pho in the south side of the valley

I’ve found that the further away you are from West Valley, the less likely you are to find a great bowl. Pho 9 in West Jordan is an exception. Sometimes you just want to go to wherever is closest, especially if it’s a snow day. Pho 9 is just off Redwood and relatively close to Bangerter Highway, making it an easy trip for many.

The broth is similar in flavor profile to Pho 777 — heavy on the spices, namely black cardamom. The thing I love the most about spiced broths is how well they compliment the garnishes and a generous lime squeeze. I don’t think Pho 9 gets enough praise for how great it is. [pho9.weebly.com]

Ramen

Unfortunately, the word ramen can be subject to misunderstandings. Instant ramen was originally invented in the 1950’s to be a cheap and convenient mimic of actual ramen. Like pho, ramen can take days to prepare. Instant noodles and ramen have since become entirely different kinds of food despite sharing the same name. While there’s a time and place for the instant stuff, that topic is beyond the scope of this article.

Ramen is a Japanese wheat noodle soup. Similar to pho, ramen is a creation of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s that was heavily influenced by Southern Chinese immigrants. Both dishes have since skyrocketed in popularity to become a national dish in its respective country and international icons. Typically served in a chicken and/or pork broth, I’ve seen ramen broth made with anything from lamb to seafood with combinations of everything in between. If that isn’t confusing enough, there’s even soup-less ramen!

What defines ramen is a low moisture alkaline noodle made from wheat and kansui, which increases the pH level of the dough. Changes in pH alters the structure of gluten and how the molecules in the dough bind together. Think of how lactic acid in the fermentation process alters sourdough. While sourdough is acidic, ramen noodles are alkaline. Kansui added to a dough with very low water content gives ramen its distinct firm, yet bouncy texture.

Frankly, I used to believe the ramen scene in Salt Lake was very underdeveloped. For years, I would tell people:

“Don’t bother with ramen in Salt Lake. You’re better off visiting One More Noodle House in Chinatown. It’s an absolute gem. It’s not ramen, but it’s close enough to scratch the itch for me.”

But after having a bowl at every Ramen restaurant in SLC, I now say:

“Don’t bother with ramen in Salt Lake. You’re better off visiting One More Noodle House in Chinatown. It’s an absolute gem. It’s not ramen, but it’s close enough to scratch the itch for me.”

While there’s exciting news for the future of ramen, I’m sad to say I wasn’t able to find any ramen in SLC that I was in love with. However If you’re willing to visit Park City, I’m here to report that there’s a single shop that I can confidently recommend: Hana Ramen.

Hana Ramen – a love letter to modern Tokyo-style ramen

When I first tried Hana Ramen, I was ecstatic. If you’re looking for legitimate Japanese style ramen? At the time of writing, Hana Ramen in Park City is the closest you’ll find in a radius of several hundred miles. It’s worth the drive from Salt Lake. Formally educated at Rajuku Ramen School in Japan, chef/owner Mike is introducing modern day Tokyo-style ramen to Utah. The most popular type of ramen in Utah is overwhelmingly tonkotsu, and while Tokyo isn’t a destination for tonkotsu ramen — I still think Mike whips up the best in the state. For each bowl at Hana, the clear star of the show is the broth. The tonkotsu broth isn’t too light, but not too obnoxiously in your face either.

Everything is made in house, even the noodles! This is atypical even for ramen shops in Japan. If you’re lucky, you might stop by while they’re preparing a batch on their proudly displayed noodle maker right in front of the restaurant. You might notice Hana’s noodles aren’t yellow. The yellow hue in ramen noodles comes from the alkalinity of kansui, but between you and me — most of the coloring comes from artificial dye, not something you’ll find here.

Hana Ramen - BGO tonkotsu with shio tare (@4aminslc)
Hana Ramen – BGO tonkotsu with shio tare (@4aminslc)

I feel like Hana really starts to shine when it comes to their other styles of ramen, namely the many variations of shoyu ramen that might appear as weekly specials. After all, this is the type of ramen Tokyo is most known for. If you’re more familiar with tonkotsu, shoyu broth is much lighter in comparison. It’s typically served as a clear broth as opposed to tonkotsu’s heavy and opaque white broth, caused by the emulsification of animal fat into the soup.

Hana Ramen - triple soup shoyu ramen, a combination of 3 separate broths with shoyu tare (@4aminslc)
Hana Ramen – triple soup shoyu ramen, a combination of 3 separate broths with shoyu tare (@4aminslc)

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows! The chef is stubbornly traditional. Some examples: eggs are not a default topping, they refuse takeout/delivery orders, and certain modifications will be denied. Frankly, the chef is a bit ramen crazy, but I kinda respect that. The menu can be confusing with the way some ingredients are listed and bowls are on the pricey side. Though considering other ramen joints in Park City are listing their bowls for $25 or more, this is a steal.

Regardless, this is my favorite place to get ramen in Utah by a very wide margin. I recommend any variation of shoyu or miso ramen if they’re available. BGO tonkotsu is a crowd pleaser, but really — just ask for the weekly special and trust Mike. Mike will be opening a new ramen concept in SLC proper in early 2024. Keep an eye out for updates! [hanaramenbar.com]

Other Ramen

Unlike Hana, these ramen joints are actually in Salt Lake. They’re not quite my cup of tea, but here’s some of the most popular shops.

Japan Sage Market – small grocery store, best value

Okay, I take that back. I actually love Japan Sage Market. Prepared food is available from open to 2.00 p.m. You’ll be able to find favorites such as onigiri, katsudon, gyudon, and bento.

The ramen is $6! Only available as take out, topped with chashu, naruto, scallions, corn, and nori. The ramen here is intended to be a modest lunch — not restaurant style craft ramen. That being said, I think it’s tastier than many of the bowls I’ve had at restaurants charging almost three times as much. [japansagemarket.com]

Tosh’s Ramen – local favorite

Tosh’s Ramen has been a local favorite for over a decade, specializing in tonkotsu ramen. There’s two locations, one on State Street and one in Holladay. During Covid, Tosh sold both locations and moved to Japan.

While some of the toppings are great, I don’t find the broth to be their strong point. Its quality is inconsistent and one of the most mild you’ll find in Salt Lake. For this reason, their tonkotsu ramen isn’t for me — I’d suggest the karai (spicy) or curry ramen instead. Both are tonkotsu based, with the karai having chili oil mixed into the broth while the curry has Japanese curry roux. The karai is topped with minced meat, but the highlight is the mushroom — explosively sweet and savory. The curry ramen is topped with tonkatsu, a fried pork cutlet. [toshsramen.com]

Jinya – more traditional than you’d guess, best vegan ramen

A national chain from LA founded in 2010 by one Tomo Takahashi, based off his now closed ramen restaurant of the same name in Tokyo. Their bowls are intensely flavorful and that’s not always a good thing. The amount of salt and umami can be overwhelming to some people. There’s no question that this is junk food, but sometimes that’s exactly what I want my ramen to be. Naturally, a bowl from Jinya pairs well with beer. They always nail their egg and I appreciate that Jinya’s noodles aren’t overcooked to the point of mush — they have that distinct firm, bounciness that I expect with a ramen noodle. Their technique is solid, but the broth is just too overwhelming for me to rate it higher.

You might notice the color of the tonkotsu broth is different than what you might see at other places. Jinya’s is a light brown, while you’d usually see completely white broths in most other places. In the case of the tonkotsu black and tonkotsu original, a shoyu (soy sauce) tare is used instead of the more common shio (salt) tare.

Unlike some of the other ramen joints in Salt Lake, Jinya has passed the gel test every single time. This suggests that the broth is being made traditionally by boiling bones over hours. Most of the other restaurants serving ramen in Salt Lake can’t say the same. [jinyaramenbar.com]

Pho Saigon Murray - bun bo Hue (Brandon Luong)
Pho Saigon Murray – bun bo Hue (Brandon Luong)

Other notable noodle soups

Pho Saigon Murray – bun bo Hue

Dubbed the best soup in the world by the late Anthony Bourdain, BBH is the quintessential spicy noodle soup of Vietnam. The noodles are made of rice like in pho, but are typically thicker and cylindrical. Lemongrass and Vietnamese chili oil are prominent flavors. If you’re the type of person that loves spicy pho and isn’t opposed to offal or shrimp paste in the broth, I highly suggest you give BBH a try.

At the time of writing, I’m working on trying every bowl of BBH in SLC and documenting it on IG. As for now, my recommendation would be Pho Saigon in Murray. I’ve found the West Valley location to be inconsistent.

Served with sprouts, banana blossoms, cabbage, perilla, red pepper flakes, and shrimp paste on the side. The broth is slightly spicier than what’s typical. The meat is cartilaginous, very tendony. It also comes with some cha lua, or Vietnamese deli sausage.

Served with blood curd, very traditional. Some love these, but it’s not quite my jam. It’s close to flavorless with a texture I find off putting, like a very dense tofu. I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain said, these things don’t belong in my bowl. They’re easy to pick out, leaving me with perhaps the best bun bo Hue in Salt Lake.

One More Noodle House - braised beef noodles (Brandon Luong)
One More Noodle House – braised beef noodles (Brandon Luong)

One More Noodle House – beef noodles

Pho and ramen may be the two most well known Asian noodle soups. I don’t think Chinese noodle soups get anywhere near the amount of recognition they deserve. If you’re a fan of either pho or ramen, I’m willing to bet you’d love both the braised beef noodle and numbing spicy beef noodle at One More Noodle House in the Chinatown Plaza. Easily one of my favorite Chinese restaurants.

Braised beef noodles are the specialty dish at uno mas. Similar to ramen, it’s a wheat based noodle, though softer. This bowl always hits the spot for me. The broth is rich and beefy, almost like a light gravy. Topped with chopped steak, cabbage, green onions, and cilantro.

The second bowl I’d recommend is the numbing spicy beef noodle. Similar to the first bowl, but numbing spicy! Numbing spicy is one of the most unique food sensations I’ve ever had. It’s completely different from the typical sensation of spiciness, which is caused by a compound called capsaicin. Numbing spiciness is caused by hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, a molecule found in mala, or Sichuan peppercorn. While I’d associate the former with heat, the latter really does feel numbing. Your mouth will feel like how TV static looks! Fun fact: The Sichuan peppercorn was banned in the US until 2005. [onemorenoodlehouse.com]

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3 thoughts on “It’s always soup season – where to find Salt Lake’s best pho, ramen, and more”

  1. As a soup lover from Latin America who always complains about overly thick, unimaginative American soups, I thank you for this list!

    Here’s a recommendation for you: Sabor Latino’s hervido de res with a grilled arepa (and don’t forget to order ají colombiano with it!)

  2. I’ve been eating pho in the Salt Lake Valley, and all over the US, for about 25 years now thanks to an awesome client whose family owned Pho Saigon in West Valley. Thanks Tran family, you forever changed my gastronomic life!

    I have found your list pretty darn accurate, but for 1 glaring issue.
    I cannot understand the fascination with Pho 777. I made the trek with my family, I was really excited and then I was really let down. $16+ for beef broth and veggie/tofu. Not a lot of noodles, 5 tofu chunks from yesterday, very few veggies. Broth was unremarkable and not very flavorful. Service was below average and indifferent. Space was nice, new and clean, but also very cold.
    Even the little dishes of sauce are annoying to me. I like sauces in my pho, don’t make me ask 3 times to get enough sauce while my soup is getting cold…
    I feel like you nailed most of the places, but honestly, if the base price is over $10-$12 and it’s not extraordinary, I don’t think is should be considered at the top.

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