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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