Wednesday, October 7, 2015

HCMC Foodie Trip: The One with Pho

I know I have come to the right town to visit when everywhere I walked by, I could see those little food stalls on the roadside serving all kinds of different food. Ho Chi Minh City is truly a foodie town, especially if you are into street food, and I was eager to explore more during my stay in this interesting city for all the wonderful food, particularly Pho, perhaps the most famous Vietnamese dishes of all.

But sorry folks, if you came here looking for my recommendations for the best pho in Ho Chi Minh City, you are out of luck. Having spent only a few days in a city that I have never been before, I can't possibly pretend I have suddenly became expert in the whole Saigon food scene and tell you where the best places to eat are. I am no good at even being half-convincing. However, I could share with you a few spots I happened to try and like. 

I am sure one spending a few hours in front of the computer will learn everything they need to know about the history of pho, the difference in style based on geographical region etc etc, so I am not going to do the cut and paste of those and gave you a lecture. But most of us living outside Vietnam are probably more familiar with the southern style, characterized by a richer broth, thinner noodles and fancier garnishes, given the mass exodus of South Vietnamese immigrants to the western world during the war, bringing with them their hometown cooking to wherever they ended up settling in.

It didn't take long for me to have my first bowl of Pho in Ho Chi Minh City after touching down a few hours ago. Just before dinner time I walked across the park right outside my hotel to this Pho joint called "Pho Quynh", about 10 minutes away at a street corner. The place is popular especially among tourists - first because it's right in the middle of the "backpacker districts" filled with cheap hostels and bars, and second it's opened almost 24 hours, 7 days a week. 

It's hard to miss given the big shop sign with the name outside the yellow building at one corner of a busy junction in District 1. The restaurant is basic but comfortable with a handful of tables on the ground floor and into the street, then more seats on the air-conditioned first floor. The noodles were cooked at the booth on the side and if you need something to drink, there's a separate cart selling those right next door. The menu was simple and came with an English version so ordering is no hassle. Basically you have a choice of Pho Bo - the basic beef noodles with a clear broth (and the variations of that based on the ingredients you want) - or Pho Bo Kho - a tomato-based beef noodles - think of it as Boeuf Bourguignon served as soup with flat rice noodles. On each table sat a plateful of garnishes - Thai basil, cilantro, chilies, lime etc, and bottles of hoisin sauce and Sriracha, which customers can squeeze into their noodles directly or as a dipping sauce for the meat. Bean Sprouts were steamed and served on a separate plate when the bowl of noodles were brought over, which you could add in as well. 

Because of its proximity to my hotel, I came here on two separate occasions, once in the afternoon and another time in the morning a few days later, and I managed to try out both types. I personally liked the soup base on the Pho Bo Kho with the rich, almost sweet tomato flavors, with tender beef brisket and carrots, but the Pho Bo Dac Biet - the "special" beef noodles in clear broth - came with generous portions of thin, slightly cooked beef slices, beef balls and huge chunks of tendons and tripes, with the broth truer to the beef taste, and the green chilies just provided the right spicy kick to the delicious soup. The herb garnishes appeared to be fresher than the other joints I visited too, giving the soup an added fragrant aroma. It's almost as fun observing other people at the table, each going through their own "rituals" of mixing the sauce, picking the herbs, tearing them up with their hands and add to their bowl in their own ways.

The bowl of noodles at Pho Quynh was on the pricier side in this city's standard (around 60000 VND) - still cheap by all means - and with all things considered - location, comfort and food quality - this is probably my favorite place for pho in HCMC.

Pho Quynh: 323 Pham Ngu Lau, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Other than Pho Quynh, I also visited a few more other pho restaurants in town. Most of the guidebooks recommended Pho Hoa on Pasteur Street and Pho Le near Chinatown and I can report back that both were excellent. Of all places, Pho Hoa was probably one of the most well known - many people swore by they served the best bowl of Pho Bo in the whole world - and it's no surprise that many pho shop owners overseas opt to name their place "Pho Hoa" or "Pho Pasteur", borrowing the fame from this original joint. The Pho Bo Dac Biet at Pho Hoa came with a sumptuous mix of ingredients - the beef loin slices, tendon, tripes, brisket, minced meat balls and all, and the soup base was clear yet rich and super-delicious. You could also go with a plate of deep-fried dough which you could dip into the soup and ate, just like many locals do. They also serve a wide range of Vietnamese snacks, from Goi Cuon (cold spring roll) to meat buns.

Pho Hoa: 260C Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Pho Le was packed with people when I went there on a late afternoon. The shop is on a pretty busy street on District 5, and for me, a quick 5 minute cab ride from hotel. Most people just rode on their scooters, parked right in front at the door and had their bowl of noodles inside. They may not serve the biggest bowl in town but it's of great quality, especially the beef balls and tendons, along with the clear soup laden with herbal flavors.

Pho Le: 413-415 Nguyen Trai, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

But to be honest, I didn't really have a bad bowl of pho whilst I was in the city, even at random places I happened to come across. One early morning I was strolling on the street and saw this little curb side booth with tables packed with people - the popularity is always a good indication of the quality of the food. The setup was almost primitive - noodles were cooked on a simple gas stove with the pot of broth simmering next to it, and ingredients lined up neatly in a makeshift mise en place on plastic stools, and one middle-aged lady who did everything from cooking to serving to cleaning all day long. I grabbed a stool at an empty spot, sat down and was served a simple yet wonderful bowl of pho bo, with just a few slices of beef and braised loin. If you are not the type who would cringe at the thought of eating by the curbside, this could as well be the best food you would ever have for just a little more than USD$1.

"No Name" Pho Booth: Junction of Nguyen Thi Nghia and Pham Ngu Lao

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