Our Friend Pho

8 Mar

Red kindergarten table and chairs on pavement, Vietnam

Clearly a Good Place to Eat

Vietnamese is now officially Z’s favourite cuisine — second only to Italian, ahead of Thai and English — and, as noodle soup obsessives, we will really miss our (almost) daily pho.

Pho is one of those dishes, like the classic English fry-up, that only seems to work when served in a grubby, streetside place lined with red plastic kindergarten chairs and populated by troughing locals.

Pho comes in three main varieties. Pork (heo), well-done beef (bo) and rare beef (bo tai), though they will make it with anything in the tourist joints. Most places do one type of meat per day, full stop.

At the heart of pho is a rich, long-simmered, meaty broth, the very essence of umami. Pho arrives at table as a bowl of broth, with narrow, flat rice noodles, topped with slices of meat, or slivers of rare beef, a smattering of chopped spring onion, and perhaps some crispy curls of pork fat or fried garlic.

Bowl of pho with side dishes of herbs, chillis, pickled garlic, beansprouts, chilli sauce

The Basic Elements

You enhance this delicious base, to your taste, using fresh lime, vegetables (always beansprouts, sometimes other green things too), fresh herbs (mint, rau rom, basils, corianders), fresh or dried chillis and fish sauce (or soy sauce in the tourist joints), sometimes preserved ginger or garlic, creating your own perfect balance of tang, heat and umami, accented with your choice of Vietnamese herbs.

And, my god, do they have fantastic herbs here!

Slurp up the noodles, spoon down the broth, pick out the garnishes when they have “cooked” to perfection, and you’re away.

At a streetside stall or restaurant, it should come in around a dollar — we’ve paid between 15,000 and 20,000 dong*. Most will only serve one type of meat.

Our favourite place for pho? In an alley round the back of Vo Tan Than Street, just past the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, they serve a stunningly balanced rare beef pho: the meat is delicate, succulent, pink, and the fatty broth has been simmered to death.

We tried a version at Quan An Ngon, Saigon (now on Pasteur, Saigon), which has everyone seems to rave about, but the French colonial villa version, even though they simmer their broth for 24 hours, can’t compete with the plain ole plastic chairs.

In fairness, though, how can a team of chefs who turn out an 18-page menu nightly (or part of it: they were out of ingredients for a lot of the more interesting stuff when we were there), compete with an old lady in a backstreet caff who’s been making pho day in day out for forty, fifty years, and earned her living on that recipe alone?

*Partway through writing this post, we wandered out to a promising-looking pho stall in Hue, then were ushered inside to a place with bamboo chairs. 30,000 dong apiece. Grrr… It’s not the money that matters. It’s the feeling of being stung.

4 Responses to “Our Friend Pho”

  1. Anne-Marie March 8, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    Mouthwatering. What is rau rom?

  2. fattydumpling March 9, 2010 at 1:09 am #

    Oh my goodness, I feel so envious of your traveling ;] I eat pho all the time, but would really like to go and eat the authentic stuff in Vietnam. Perhaps I’ll pretend it’s authentic by passing by Chinatown in Toronto and eating in an alleyway.

    HAHA! Your blog’s fun to read, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of your travels. Your son sounds very mature for his age, ahah, at least in comparison to the other 9 year olds that I know. It’s great!

    • MummyT March 9, 2010 at 1:56 am #

      It’s one of relatively few Vietnamese dishes that one finds in the West that works infinitely better on its home turf than when transplanted, I would say. I’m a big fan of the Vietnamese strip on Kingsland Road, in London, though I haven’t visited Toronto. I will be posting about seafood and snails at some point: fantastic range of clams, for example, and very good snails… Also looking forward to the Lao take on noodle soup…

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