Hungry for a meal that’s comforting, quick, and cheap? At one of the many Vietnamese restaurants in the city, you’ll find your fix: pho, a restorative bowl of assorted meats, rice noodles, and deeply flavourful beef broth. “It’s a very, very heartwarming soup,” says Khiem Chau, assistant manager at Hai Phong Vietnamese Restaurant(1246 Kingsway).
Pho, pronounced “fuh”, has a history tied to French colonialism and the civil war in Vietnam. While theories about its origins differ, they generally attribute pho to the same part of the country. “Originally, it [pho] came from the north of Vietnam,” explains Tung Thach at Pho Thai Hoa (1625 Kingsway). “Around 1954, North and South separated and people from the North went south. That is how northern people brought it to the South.”
Thach is from Ho Chi Minh City, where pho is eaten throughout the year, especially during hot weather, when “you want soup, not something dry.” The broth is the litmus test of a good pho. While most restaurateurs are loath to divulge their secrets, Thach volunteers some of his: beef bones, beef brisket, onion, ginger, star anise, and cinnamon. He stresses that it is the quality of the ingredients and the cooking time that ensure good flavour: “You have got to cook it overnight at low temperatures, and you have to make sure all the juice from the bones and beef comes out.”
The broth at his restaurant is clear, subtly spiced, and sweet from the beef bones that have been simmering for hours. The kitchen goes through roughly 80 litres of it per day, keeping a pot going during service so that cooks can quickly assemble steaming bowls. To the stock, they add rice noodles and a variety of meats. The ultimate choice is the pho dac biet ($5.50 regular, $5.95 large), which contains generous chunks of medium-rare beef, soft tendon, fatty brisket, tripe, and beef balls.
Over at Kim Phung Vietnamese Restaurant (5764 Victoria Drive), manager Nathi Nguyen takes pride in the broth recipe that her great-grandmother used at her street stall in Ho Chi Minh City. The recipe produces a heavily spiced pho ($5.50 regular, $6.50 large) that is dark in colour and has a depth of flavour that Nguyen attributes to the heavier spicing. “We like it deep!” she insists during a chat at the restaurant.
The flavour doesn’t end with the broth. Cooks there garnish the pho with white onion, green onion, cilantro, and thorny coriander (ngo gai) just before sending it out with a side dish of bean sprouts, lime, chili peppers, and basil. These items can be added to the broth, along with hoisin and hot chili sauces, which are traditionally used as dipping sauces for meat taken out of the soup. Nguyen herself adds only a squeeze of lime, but many people play with add-ins until the pho is just to their liking.
At Hai Phong, Chau has noticed that young people enjoy the additions, while older customers tend to be purists. His family is Chinese Vietnamese, and is proud of the authenticity of its broth. Chau’s version, borrowed from his aunt in Toronto, is slightly dark, sweet, and redolent of light spicing and beef flavour.
Sugar heightens the soup’s sweetness, and he emphasizes that unlike other establishments, Hai Phong doesn’t rely on MSG to make up for thin broth. “If you can taste the MSG, it means there is a lot of it and less beef base,” he explains at the restaurant.
His broth has to be of the highest quality since Chau estimates that about 40 percent of the clientele is of Vietnamese origin. Asked why his family chose a Kingsway location, he replies, “It has kind of become the Vietnamese street, from Fraser up until Nanaimo. People tend to open here because a lot of Vietnamese people come here.”
He adds that, nonetheless, he has a mix of customers who order pho ($5 regular, $5.75 large), along with appetizers like spring rolls (cha gio) and salad rolls (goi cuon). The crepe (banh xeo) is another popular pick—it’s a mung-bean crepe skin filled with pork, shrimp, and mixed vegetables.
But pho is still the main draw. The popular beef noodle soup is so much a part of Vietnamese culture that some people start every day with a bowl. “We have regular customers who eat pho every morning,” Chau says. How’s that for a power breakfast?