…a very difficult one to call. Before I give the final answer, a subjective one of course, it’s important to define what actually makes a good pho (in case you haven’t read my other Vietnam posts, pho is the general name for the thick rice noodles served in broth). Here is my take on it:
1) For me the whole dish hinges on the broth. And I found that a Hanoi pho has a distinct broth which is sweet (not by sugar) and homely, and does not contain additives like chilli sauce, vinegar or garlic. I hear that connoisseurs of pho like to lightly stir their noodles in the broth and then take a mouthful of the sweet broth. Straight away you know if it is good or not.
2) The next thing is the quality of the meat. We came across two main types of pho: pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken).
Pho Bo: here brisket is usually used, which is from the front underside of the cow. I came across three variants of pho bo. The first was pho bo chin, which uses a beef that has been boiled, hung up to dry and is then sliced. The second was pho bo tai, where the fat and tendons are removed from the beef. The beef is cut into small pieces, put in a ladle and the ladle is half submerged in the vat of broth. The meat is pulled out when semi-cooked. The third variant I saw was pho tai nam. This one is similar to pho bo tai except that cooked meat is served with raw meat. In all instances the beef is placed on the noodles in a serving dish and then broth is poured over.
Pho Ga: I only saw one variant of pho ga. In Hanoi only the chicken breast is served in this noodle soup, so to get a good mark, mentally in my head anyway, the breast had to be nice and tender and full of flavour.
3) The noodles are another important part. They should be nice and slippery with no ‘sliminess’. To be honest all the noodles I tried in Hanoi were near damn perfect.
4) Additions. This is really about what was served with the pho. Usually the pho is served with spring onions and garlic chives. Also, an additional bowl would be served containing anything from the following; perilla leaves, Asian mint, coriander, Vietnamese mint, crisp lettuce, miniature limes and fiery chilli. I can’t remember any pho being served with bean shoots although when I eat pho in Little Vietnam in Melbourne there are always bean shoots. I actually think the pho is better without them.
I worked out that we have eaten pho at nearly every type of establishment, and have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apart from one which was average (it was an international chain of Pho restaurants), all of them have been unique and ‘insanely great’ (stole that one from Mr Jobs, RIP).
We had the honour of eating pho ga on Christmas night with the owners of the apartment and all the other tenants. This was a wonderful experience with in an international group of people socialising, laughing and telling stories whilst lapping up beautiful noodle soup, spring rolls, sticky rice and punchy and herbaceous salads.
We had memorable pho bo and pho ga on the edge of the mountains in Sapa – it was cold there, so the hot noodle broth for breakfast instilled a warmth that would carry you through to lunch.
We have eaten pho at little places we have discovered in Hanoi; usually tiny holes in a wall kitted out with miniature plastic stools and tables, and serving the most incredible pho.
But the winner of the best pho, and the place that completes number 10 in the top ten of must eat street food experiences, goes to a place that is renowned for its pho in Hanoi, and the one that I saved till last to eat in. Located in the middle of the Old Quarters this pho joint is mentioned in a couple of publications that we have in Vietnam with us; Luke Nguyen’s book ‘Songs of Sapa’ and Lonely Planet Vietnam.
I awoke at 6.30 in the morning and took the 25 minute walk from our apartment to Pho Gia Truyen, the name of the pho stall. I was greeted by a queue of locals that were being served by a Vietnamese lady with an intimidating looking meat knife. She was delicately cutting slices from the big piece of brisket.
As my turn arrived to be served she barely lifted her head, but I could see her eyeballs stretching to look at me. She gave me the look of ‘are you going to order or what?’
Nervously, I said “pho bo, cam on”. She raised her head, gave a little smile and pointed to the menu. There were three things all of which I had never heard of so I plumped for pho tai nam (see above). I sat down at a small table where my knees covered my ears. Everyone let out a big gesticulation of laughter and they pointed to a bigger table. Smiling, I moved and was then served the most sweet, beefy and heart-warming broth that I had eaten in Hanoi.
The meat was incredibly tender, the noodles were unctuous and the herbs, although few, harmonised with the whole dish. My best pho in Hanoi.