Pho From Home: Finding Perfection
I am staring at a forty-paged PDF file on my laptop. My mother, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, has enlisted her friend, Mr. Hung, to be of my assistance.
Mr. Hung can best be described as a food fanatic. You can ask him about any restaurant in the city, and he could probably write you a two paged essay about it. Labeling him as anything seems insufficient. I have always been suspect of the American so-called "foodie." Not only is it a word we don't use at City of Ate, images of Man vs. Food, the Paula Deen boys, and Guy Fieri (shudder), come to mind.
The point is not merely liking to eat, but knowing how to eat WELL. Asian gourmands get their fill eating five small meals a day, all whilst maintaining their wiry frames. In Dallas, if you want a good meal, it is generally known to go to an Abacus, a Fearing's, or an Al Biernat's. However, in Asia, there are so many restaurants that it takes a very special person to pinpoint the really amazing places.
Case in point, this monstrous forty-paged breakdown of where and what to eat in Ho Chi Minh City, sent to me by a Mr. Hung.
Although highly endearing, this isn't exactly what my mom and I had in mind. After explaining to her friend that I am strictly writing about pho, he happily sends me a more concise and less intimidating list. Skimming his revised list, the first thing I notice missing are the usual suspects; an absence of popular chains or famous pho institutions. Second thing I notice is that I have no idea where any of these places are.
This is going to be good.
Please understand that by this point, I am extremely over pho. After begrudgingly eating multiple bowls of mediocrity, sometimes worse, and being steered in the wrong direction by friends who normally ask me for restaurant suggestions, I am beginning to feel a little resentful towards my editor. "How dare he deprive me of eating some crispy Banh Xeo or a steamy bowl of Hu Tiu," I asked myself as I grumpily slurped away.
From five star hotels to local hotspots, I have tried my fair share of pho. My quest consisted of asking HCMC natives about their favorite pho spots, as well as just following large flocks of diners. Hitting up all the requisites, Pho Hoa, Pho Hung, and Pho 24 (which you will all be able to read about in my final installment from Vietnam), thus far, I have yet to find a truly great bowl of pho.
Ready to go, list in hand, my mother and I head downstairs to the lobby of our current resting place, the Hotel Catina. We have no idea where any of the listed restaurants are, so we are in need of assistance from the hotel staff. The Catina is a four star boutique hotel sitting, amazingly, in the middle of Dong Khoi street, the most iconographic street in HCMC, as well as a major upscale tourist destination. It is late now, around 8:30 pm, and the two front desk guys are listless and ready to go home.
We ask them, "Where is a good place to go get some pho?"
In English, one of the young men responds, "Madam, there is a Pho 24 down the street, walking distance." This is an understatement, seeing as how Pho 24's litter the city like Starbucks in Manhattan.
My mom, disgusted, retorts in Vietnamese, "Oh God, no. Come on, look at this list and tell me where I can get some really good pho."
She hands the young man the list. With a new glimmer in his eye and returning to his native tongue, he exclaims, "Oh! Pho Phu Vuoung. This place is so good! They are very well known amongst the locals. It is in District 3!"
Phu Vuong happens to be the first one on the list, which is a good sign, indeed. Hearing the restaurant's name snaps the other desk clerk out of his state of ennui and game of solitaire, as he bounds towards us and excitedly says, "Try the meatballs. They are so good and are this big," as he indicates the size of a baseball with his hands.
Meatballs? I'm in.
Since I only have one day until I fly out to Hanoi, I know this is going to be the last opportunity I will have to discover the real southern Vietnamese deal. Taking the front desk staff's enthusiasm for this one restaurant on the list over the others, my mom and I decide to go through with Pho Phu Vuong. We tell the doorman the restaurant's name, and he immediately knows what to tell the cab driver. My mom is familiar with the street, Le Van Sy, since it is a major road in HCMC, but she has never driven by the restaurant.
Our cabbie happens to be a woman, the first woman cab driver I've ever had in HCMC. Is this another sign? As she's driving, she informs us, "This place is a favorite. It is only open at night, but it is always busy. You have to go through an alley way. Because there is construction work, you might have to walk a bit to get there."
I feel like I'm searching for the Holy Grail or Balzac's tomb. As the numbers on the taxi meter keep increasing, my mother sighs, "It's so far. I hope this is good." Our taxi driver, sensing our urgency, starts taking detours through dark narrow alleys which barely fit our Toyota compact. As dark alleys lead to bright lights, our driver slowly pulls up to a fluorescent lit open door restaurant.
The sidewalk of the restaurant is flooded with Honda motorbikes, the primary transportation for the Vietnamese. We have arrived.
I tip the driver extra for being so resourceful, especially for saving us from a dark scary walk. As my mother opens the door of the taxi, a mixture of humidity, tropical evening heat, and divine aromas hit my face. My mother, somewhat in a dream state, declares, "This is pho. This is the smell of pho."
If you are wondering what the "smell of pho" is, apparently it is an aromatic blend of beef broth, fish sauce, and hint of spices. Front and center of the Pho Phu Vuong is a cooking station with the normal pho set-up in Vietnam: a plexi-glass case showing the meat, a gigantic metal pot of boiling water, soaked uncooked rice noodles, herbs, and various pho accoutrements. Missing are the pots of broth which I am curiously hunting down, but there is no time for that.
Finally, she asks me, "What are you having? Chicken or beef?"
I respond, "Beef! Get me the Pho Dac Biet." This is the meat eater's pho, filled with brisket, flank steak, and meatballs(!). My mom surprises me with a curveball and orders the same exact thing, dispensing with her usual Pho Ga, the chicken version. As we wait for our food, I soak in the atmosphere. It looks like any other mom and pop pho shop in town, with everything from the dirty floors to the rotating fans. On the wall behind my mom, there is a charming poster with a drawing of a cow and its different body parts labeled, not unlike you something you would see in a steakhouse, but this one is in Vietnamese. On the wall to my right, there is a price list showing that our bowls of pho will be costing us somewhere around $5 between the both of us. Looking down at my table, I notice something that I know will peeve my mother. The dish of herbs is running low, but a quick indication of it to one of the servers solves this little problem.
Our bowls arrive, steaming hot. For the smells in the restaurant, the broth is surprisingly clear. Before I even touch my pho, I dip my spoon into the broth and taste it. It is very different from other soups I have tried up to this point. Absent are a layer of greasy fat or overwhelming sweetness. The broth is undeniably beef, and less so seasoning. There is a beautiful balance of pho spices, but they do not take over the dish in any way. I build my bowl of pho with all of preferred fixings, one full circle of hoisin, a dash of the red stuff, basil, bean sprouts, and a squeeze of lime.
What happens next is a complete surprise to both my mother and I. As I put a spoonful of noodles, some broth, and a piece of brisket into my mouth, my eyes enlarge as something special is occurring on my palate. I look up at my mom, and she has the same expression.
As I gulp down the contents in my mouth, I ask my mom, "Did you try the brisket?" She nods with an equally excited expression, "Yes. It is soooo good. Their meat is so good."
This is coming from a woman who doesn't even eat all that much meat. This is coming from the lady who normally goes to eat pho with me or my brother and takes pieces of meat out of her bowl and places it into our bowls like we're trash compactors. Tonight, she is eating every single piece of cow in her bowl.
We continue our meal with "ooh's" and "mmm's" and laugh about how extreme Mr. Hung's knowledge of food is. He has not steered us wrong, and I have forgiven him for sending us on this hunt through mazes of small alleys and high cab fare. He will be getting a very appreciative email from me in the morning.
Finishing up, I ask my mom, pho expert, what made this pho so great compared to others she has had. She thoughtfully replies, "Their meat is marinated so well. When we walked out of the car, it smelled like pho should smell. I can't explain it. It is about the smell. Also, the broth is a mix between north Vietnamese and south Vietnamese. Not too sweet, not too salty. But I have high blood pressure, so it might still be a little too salty for me."
As we pay our tab and leave, I snap pictures of just about everything as the locals wonder who the heck is this crazy Korean? Walking out of the restaurant, to my left, I see two big pots of steaming broth. My mom asks a server standing by a pot of hot broth, "If the broth is too salty for me, what can I do?" The server answers, "We have two broths. One saltier than the other. You can ask for the less salty."
As if the evening has not already delivered its share of pleasant surprises, this little waitress has just made my cynical mother a re-born believer of good pho in Ho Chi Minh City.
Pho Phu Vuong
339 Le Van Sy, District 3
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.