Vietnamese

Pho, Grand Central, Birmingham

For a country that gets as hot as Vietnam does, Pho really is a curious national dish for them to have. It is, when you strip it back, a stock soup and noodles. Yes you can add chillies to give it fire, finish it with the sour crash of lime juice, or freshen it up with numerous herbs, but what lies at the heart is a dish as consoling as Jewish chicken soup with matzo, and as comforting as Heinz cream of tomato soup with crusty bread. Eating Pho in Vietnam is visceral, a cheap affair that usually involves tiny plastic chairs at roadside. The humidity and air pollution pushes the sweat out though the pores of the skin, the hydration replacement a cheap bottle of Saigon beer. You want nourishing; need it even. The environment demands it.

It is only when you take it out of natural habitat that you see it in all its glory. Pho is the Lego of stock soups; you can build it as you please. In Vietnam I added everything, whereas now I tailor it to the seasons. Always herbs and beansprouts, more lime and fish sauce the hotter it gets, more chilli sauce and oil to clear the cold from my bones. As a dish it is more versatile than Gareth Barry; it’s just a question of playing it in the right position from game-to-game. I think I’ve nailed it.

My point of call is always its namesake. There are other places, but they tend to deploy the Asian route of cooking the protein until the point it becomes a bushtucker trial, as opposed to dinner. Here the only thing that is anglicised is the meat, which is decent in quality and spared of boiling point. Today my airways call for a regional variation from the Imperial city of Hue. It has chicken stock that tastes of chicken (a rarity of late), with delicately cooked chicken, and noodles that have bounce and bite. The dish is stained red with large quantities of chilli oil that sends it scuttling northwards into the Sichuan region of China. It is a bloody good dinner. As good as stock and noodles and meat gets in this city, a statement that will upset those who believe that chains can never be as good as independents. Rubbish. Good and bad exist in both sectors of the restaurant industry, and Pho is firmly in the former category.

Now prior to this we had greaseless spring rolls that with pork and veg, and gobstopper sized deep fried balls of pork and lemongrass that are just about gummy enough to remind me of Hoi An. How I miss you, Hoi An. And then, whilst I am elbow deep in the pho, my lovely girlfriend is smashing through fried noodles with chicken and prawns. It tastes authentic. I could almost be in Vietnam if it wasn’t for the train announcements happening on the level below. And the cold wind howling through the door. Very nearly Vietnam.

Before I get to dessert, a word on my alcoholic tendencies. Being a day of the week, I get stuck into the booze. The pick is the martini/Vietnamese coffee hybrid cocktail that has me all weak in the knees, though its lovely to have Saigon beer and Beer Lao so readily available. Dessert is banana fritters with honey and ginger ice cream. The batter is sturdy so that the fruit inside has a chance to cook through, the ice cream rich and sweet. It is a great way to finish a meal.

Now my adoration to the country of origin means I eat Pho more than the next man, and I come here a lot. I come because the service is sharp and the food consistent. It allows me to dip in and out of my favourite country in the world. It’s not perfect, but then neither is Vietnam. Pho as a chain get it; they take the memories of Vietnam and put them in one spot; the noodle soups and the wok dishes, the Vietnamese coffee thickened with condensed milk, those crisp beers that work so well under the sun. I’m a fan. They have a product that very clearly works.

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Pho, Birmingham

A year ago I went on a three week, whistle-stop tour of Vietnam. It’s a country that I quickly fell in love with, full of welcoming people, beautiful landscapes and unique heritage. I found the cuisine to be compelling, making extensive use of aromatics and heat to create exotic dishes that linger in the mouth and memory.  I loved every second of it.  Yet, it has become almost impossible to find Vietnamese food back in Blighty.  EAT done there take on Banh Mi with predictably car crash results and now we have Pho, a small chain of London based restaurants, within the confides of Birmingham’s own Grand Central.

Pho, somewhat unsurprisingly given the name, focuses on its namesake dish, which is essentially a stock soup with noodles and meat.  The best we tried in Vietnam had noodles with oodles of bounce (sorry), and a soup full of savoury meaty notes.  You get a side dish from which to add fish sauce, chilli, coriander and lime to taste, which for me was an excess of everything.  As my girlfriend pointed out in Hoi An; if the Pho tastes bad it is probably your fault for ruining it.  The chicken version at Pho was good, though the stock soup was lacking in the depth of flavour which we became accustomed to.  What was infinitely better was the meat, which had none of the chewiness from birds used of an older age in South East Asia.

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There was a Pho Xao, a noodle stir fry not a million miles away from the more familiar Pad Thai, that was full of crunch and lemon grass notes.  Again, as with the Pho itself, it felt like an anglicised version of what we were used to, lacking the fire of chilli and the extensive use of fresh herbs.  Far better were deep fried vegetarian spring rolls with a brittle casing and vibrant filling.  The thick peanut dipping sauce it came with was good enough to take home and meet the parents before settling down for a life of happiness.

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They serve the wonderful Saigon beer which took us took us back to the sun and Vietnamese style coffee which did nothing of the sort.  All this came to around thirty quid, which is seems fair for Birmingham and about six times too much from Vietnam.  Still, at least here we have the exotic views of New Street Station.  For what’s its worth I liked Pho, maybe not enough to be a regular, but certainly enough to swing by when I need my Vietnam fix.

7/10

Pho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

MinMin Noodle Bar, Birmingham

Soon I am off to Vietnam for a well earned holiday. For three weeks we plan to do a whistle-stop tour of Hanoi down to Phu Quoc, with stops in all of the usual places and a seventeen hour train ride thrown in for good measure, just because her-indoors knows how much I despise train journeys. With any luck I will return bronzed ready for our one week of Summer, with a cheap suit barely holding its shape and two stone lighter due to the inevitable food poisoning. I will throw myself into the local cuisine and let it do its worst. Onwards and upwards. Inward then probably quickly outward.

And yet, despite the holiday rapidly approaching, I am still to try authentic Vietnamese food. I read up the staples and familiarised myself with a few recipes online: Pho mostly, which is in the most basic form noodles in a broth made from pork stock. I appealed on social media for a good Pho; one friend offered his mothers services whilst another suggested MinMin, a lucid coloured cafe at the back of Birmingham’s Arcadian. If you’ve read this from the top you will know which option I took; after all the post isn’t titled The Home of Trung’s Mother.

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MinMin is a canteen-esque expanse of lime green and white glossy plastic. It is deceptively simple, which is more than can be said of the menu; a vast bounty of dishes with pictures for the more usual offerings and just words for the less enticing pigs ears and chickens feet. We started with chicken spring rolls that avoided both greasiness and any real flavour. It was a subdued start that needed the sticky chilli dipping sauce to some add punch and heat. Mixed skewers came coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried, the pick being a large juicy prawn, opaque in the centre. There was another of a white fish that neither we nor the waitress could recognise and some veg that included a clumpy slice of red onion.

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Crispy squid was well executed with the batter offering a little yield and the cephalopod still tender, the dish benefitting from the extra seasoning from the noodles dressed lightly in soy. A giant bowl of spicy broth was filled with noodles, pork belly and roast duck. The broth was key; the lingering heat eventually giving way to a delicate meatiness which found its way onto every strand of noodle. The cubes of pork belly were tender with crispy shards of skin; a treat, which is more than can be said about the duck.  I feel bad for leaving any animal unconsumed, especially duck, but I am not going to put my dental plan at risk by chowing down on a mixture of gristle and bone.

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Twenty minutes into the soupy noodles I gave in, leaving enough in the bowl for at least another person and meaning that dessert was well out of the question.  In my pre-conceived mind I wanted to love MinMin; it came recommended by people I trust to offer a style of food I am not massively au-fait with.  Shamefully I have used Wagamama as a reference point, with the food here being no better than there. Let’s hope that Vietnam fares a lot better.

6/10

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