I have learnt that great Vietnamese restaurants are often characterised by plastic chairs, laminated 278-item menus and efficient service — and they are also among those rare sanctuaries where it is socially acceptable for you to eat a meal by yourself. Everywhere else I go, I am invited to join other people’s tables, sat next to by strangers who think they are doing me a favour, or smothered by caring waitstaff. In a Vietnamese restaurant, I can enjoy my meal in relative privacy and peace.
Since finding pho, I have tasted no less than 12 bowls of pho from 7 different establishments — mostly by myself — in my quest to find the best, and I have to admit to entering this adventure somewhat blind. At first, everything tasted similar and I really didn’t know what I was looking for, which is kind of a problem when you set out to rate each meal. What I found was that the subtle differences in pho meet different tastes and moods and it is impossible to select which is ‘best’. I would gladly accept another bowl or three of each experience.
Once again, my poor iPhone photos do not do the food justice.
Pho basically comprises a stocky broth, banh pho (square rice noodles), cilantro (coriander), Thai basil, onion, spring onions and other meat/vegetables, depending on the type of pho ordered. Superhealthy stuff.
Standard accompaniments include: fresh chilli, lemon or lime, bean sprouts, mint, hoisin sauce, chilli sauce.
My pho reference sites also tell me that there is an etiquette for approaching Vietnamese food in general.
Variations on a theme
After realising my favourite style and flavour in pho tai, I couldn’t stop myself from ordering this raw beef noodle soup wherever I went. Even with the addition of beef strips to beef stock, this version remains light and refreshing — and super-addictive. For the faint of heart, I can assure you that the hot broth cooks the beef very quickly indeed. I can not imagine pho bo (traditional beef pho) or pho bo vien (pho bo with beef balls and tendon) hitting the spot in quite the same way.
The other types of pho I have sampled (and appreciate) include pho ga (chicken) and pho chay (vegetable). If you are a strict vegetarian, you may want to clarify that the stock in your pho chay is made with vegetables only; fish products may or may not be added, depending on the establishment.
I haven’t yet tasted seafood pho; the jury is out over its authenticity. I am not overly keen to try pho sach (tripe) and pho dac biet (all beef products, including tripe). Offal has never really appealed to me.
…and, if you are going to order pho, you may want to learn how to pronounce it (although gesturing to a menu item will usually get you what you want). Loving Pho features an excellent pronunciation guide.
My pho tai ritual
Before I tell you about any individual eating experiences, I want to share my pho tai ritual with you. I also managed to find a more ‘official’ ritual on Pho Fever.
Start with some tea. It inevitably comes in a stainless steel thermos, no sooner sipped than the soup arrives. And the soup arrives quickly. Imbibe the aroma of the virgin soup momentarily. Use the chopsticks to add fresh chilli rings, then tear in fresh mint leaves [aah, the delightfully fresh scent still on my fingers!], stack bean sprouts high. Immerse all into the broth with the chopsticks. Squeeze fresh lemon over the top in a swirl. Pause to smell; waft the aroma into eager nostrils with spirit fingers; salivate in anticipation.
Taste the sweet broth first. Pause to savour with softly closed eyes. Crane over the bowl, spoon and chopsticks poised in tandem. Eat low. Half-time break: more mint and bean sprouts; all the chilli is in there. Leave the hoisin and chilli sauce be. Stop eating only when the bottom of the bowl is naked. Find comfort in the knowledge that your meal has nourished and sated. Sip some more tea.
The taste test
In an attempt to be semi-scientific in spite of my subjectivity, I tabulated my pho experiences for your viewing pleasure:
|Venue:||Dish(es) ordered:||Thoughts:||Would I eat there again?|
|Nhat Tan — Marrickville (Sydney), NSW||Pho Chay (13 Feb)||Simple menu, moreish & pure, hint of chilli.||Absolutely|
|Simply Pho — Northbridge, WA||Pho Chay (10 Aug)||Delicious, pure.||I can’t — it’s closed down|
|Viet Hoa — Northbridge, WA||Pho Tai (22 Aug)||Flavour not as pure as expected, very hearty, appreciated the cilantro.||Yes, but not my first preference|
|Vinh Hong — Northbridge, WA||Pho Ga, Pho Chay (12 Sept)
Pho Tai (27 Oct)
|The pho ga & pho chay were refreshing & delicious. The staff were so friendly that they gave us samples of their meal; so good.
The pho tai was delicious, though not much beef; beef & onion were not cut as finely as I would have liked > the flavours were a little overpowering towards the end.
|Phong Vinh — Northbridge, WA||Pho Tai (14 Sept)||Clean & clear broth; delicious.||Absolutely|
|To To — Victoria Park, WA||Pho Tai (15 Sept)
Pho Ga (22 Sept)
|Stylish decor; very busy.
With its delicate wafers of raw beef, the pho tai was really lovely; I had to ask for fresh chilli (came with chilli sauce only).
The pho ga was pleasant; not as flavourful as I had hoped for; sprouts & mint leaves were wilted.
|Yes, for the pho tai — not so much for the pho ga|
|Tra Vinh — Northbridge, WA||Pho Tai x 3(24 & 26 Oct, 6 Nov)||Stunning. Ample meat cut into thin slivers, very fresh accompaniments, comforting broth.||Yes, yes, yes!|
Please note: Each bowl of pho was similarly sized [I believe ginormous is the technical term] and priced at $9-$10, hence no prices are listed. All venues were visited in 2009 and gave very prompt service, with pho arriving within 5 minutes so long as no other dishes were ordered.
[As an aside, I love it that Tra Vinh is listed on the Everything Weddings website. That makes me smile 🙂 ]
There are more pho-serving restaurants I aim to visit in the near future, such as:
- Phi Yen — across the road from Hotel Northbridge, where I almost sang karaoke last night; and
- Pho Hung in Girrawheen. I have been told that Girrawheen is the Vietnamese centre of WA, so I think a future post will have to be focused on foodly experiences in that area.
I am so enamoured with pho that this post can not be the end of my journey. I will keep eating pho and, now that I know what I want, I will attempt to conjure my own version when I have a spare 24 hours to make the stock — and this will, of course, feature on a very foodly diary in the near future.
Amendment of 9 November 2009: Reference to cilantro was changed, following further research. See the comments for more information [and thanks for asking the question, Matt! :)].