Pho From Home: Hanoi Style

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In Pho From Home we seek out the variety of pho--authentic, Texified, good and bad--available in restaurants, starting in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and winding all the way around the Dallas area.

This time, we wrap up our excursion through Vietnam. Next week, we begin our tour of Dallas.

"Ooh...It's light! It doesn't taste like the bag," says my delightfully surprised friend Cathy.

I am in North Vietnam. More specifically, I am in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. My friend Cathy has just flown in from the U.S. to visit me. Seeing as how she's never been to Hanoi, and as how neither of us have ever seen Halong Bay, we flew out to Hanoi a day after she arrived in Ho Chi Minh City.

Over breakfast, Cathy tries out her first ever bowl of northern Vietnamese pho, the original. I warn her that it's going to be different from any other pho she's ever had, and she is game.

At the breakfast table are Cathy, myself, and my mom, the self-proclaimed connoisseur of pho. To my mother's credit, she does make a pretty great bowl of the good stuff. My mother is delighted that Cathy is trying "real" pho.

Did I mention that we are in the Daewoo Hotel in Hanoi? Albeit it is a Korean owned hotel in Vietnam, the food here, no matter what genre, is always stellar and accurate. The Chinese restaurant upstairs has a Shanghainese Executive Chef. The Japanese restaurant across the pool has a Japanese sushi master. And my mom assures me, after smelling and inspecting the bowl of pho in front of us, that this is the real deal.

Examining this bowl, I bask in the beauty, simplicity, and purity of its contents. Cathy revels in how clear the broth is, compared to others she has had in the U.S. and in Ho Chi Minh City. My mother opines how little flecks of basil and green onion are already served as a garnish atop the pho, and how no Hoisin sauce is provided. I take mental notes on how much thicker and wider the rice noodles are in this bowl compared to phos I have had in the past. I bring this up to my mother, and she confirms that northern pho does, indeed, have a wider noodle. There are no other garnishes provided, no bean sprouts, no extra basil, just a single wedge of lime and some chili sauce.

My mom forcibly makes a point to tell me the lime is non-negotiable, that I must use it. The steam emanating from the bowl offers no hint of star anise or other familiar pho spices, just a notion of fish sauce and beefy broth. I gather onto the wide porcelain pho spoon, a bit of broth, a few noodles, a slice of beef, and take my first bite.

The aromas are non-deceiving. I taste just a bare hint of spices, broth, fish sauce, ginger (an addition you can't really taste in southern pho) and lime. It is a divinely clean flavor. There is a bite from the green onion and basil. The noodles are wide, soft, tender, but a bit chewy. Looking over at Cathy happily slurping broth, and glancing at my mom's look of satisfaction, I realize we are experiencing something special, a sublime bowl of northern Vietnamese pho. I haven't forgotten about my Ho Chi Minh City pho excursions. However, I think the significance of describing my Hanoi pho experience before I even start describing the HCMC phos speaks volumes.

I went through bowl after bowl of pho in HCMC before I found one that was actually quite excellent. The restaurants I sampled ranged from five star hotels to pho chains to proclaimed "best pho in Saigon" establishments . All proved disappointing until I tried the very special, Pho Phu Vuong. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, the very first pho I tried, is a complete knock out. I don't attribute this to Hanoi having the better pho. All this might indicate is that sometimes, maybe simpler is better. Maybe it's easier to make a truly good thing if it isn't so perplex or if there are fewer components. It's fine to modify according to tastes, but it's an entirely different story to lose something's true essence.

That was the most disappointing aspect of pho in HCMC. Still, by eating bad pho, I learned a lot more about the dish than I knew before. I learned what makes a bad pho, and what makes a good pho, no matter from what region it comes. When I visited the popular chain, Pho 24, my best friend and a native southern Vietnamese, Hoa, wouldn't even order a bowl. He said I was on my own. When I tasted the pho, I knew why. My friend explained, "Do you see what I mean? This place is just for foreigners. Kind of cheap, clean, convenient. But the pho is terrible because good pho, all the flavors have to blend together. This pho is not like that. The broth does not taste like the meat. The meat has no flavor. It doesn't blend together."

Mr. Hung (whom you may remember from last week) added this via email, "The quality of Pho 24 has really taken a downturn. They now have to add more variety of dishes because their pho is so poor."

The day after the requisite Pho 24 visit, Hoa and I decided to hit up Pho Hung, another popular pho stop on the touristy Nguyen Trai Road. My mom, hearing of my dinner plans, warned me, "Oh nooooo...that place was opened by Viet Kieu from Cali." Viet Kieu is a Vietnamese person who was either born outside of Vietnam or who now resides outside of Vietnam.

My mom's misgivings proved to be spot on. The broth tasted like a warm salt water gargle, and the noodles were mush. I was worried. Why were these two places so popular?

Saving the biggest name for last, the "must visit" of pho restaurants in HCMC is the legendary Pho Hoa Pasteur on Pasteur Road. There are thousands of Pho Pasteurs or Pho Hoas across the U.S., all paying homage to the original in Vietnam while hoping for a little name association, as well. Pho Hoa, having been open before the Fall of Saigon in 1975, is an institution. Tourists and locals alike flock here for their massive bowls of undeniably southern Vietnamese pho. While I've eaten at Pho Hoa Pasteur several times, dating back to the days that I lived here, the most interesting and educational experience was when I ate here with my mom.

Of course.

Upon hearing that Hoa and I were going to make a visit to the restaurant for the blog, my mom invited herself to join us. "She hates this place," I thought. However, my mom has always been a glutton for punishment, especially when it comes to food. Like most notorious restaurants in Vietnam, Pho Hoa Pasteur is not much to look at. Hot, dirty, and fluorescently lit, the only feature that hints at the fame of the restaurant are the packed dining rooms, filled with both westerners and natives. The pho station is downstairs, and as we made our way upstairs to the air-conditioned dining room, my mom earned her keep even before we reached our seats.

"Dear God," she said in Vietnamese, "by the time the pho gets up here, it'll already be cold. Pho is only good when it is very very hot."

I knew I was paying for her dinner for a reason.

A young Vietnamese girl, clad in yellow pajamas, and not a day over twelve years old, seated us at our metal table with matching metal stools. Next to our table sat a large party, a local Vietnamese family, celebrating a special occasion. We all order our various beef phos (once again, my mom is justifying her negligence of her high cholesterol for the sake of my blog).

Once we received our bowls, my mom's prediction proved correct. Our soup was lukewarm. Upon sampling the first spoonful of broth, an immediate sensation of sweetness hit my tongue. While southern Vietnamese pho is sweeter than its northern counterpart, this sweetness was overpowering. Beyond the broth, most disturbing was the mushiness of the noodles, a strange flaw for a place that only serves one thing, noodle soup. Through forced bites, my mom ranted, "Pho Hoa is so busy because of its legacy. They serve more to the tourists, now, and that is why their broth is so sweet. And their bowls are so big, just like the bowls in the U.S."

After nibbling on what tasted like a defrosted meatball, I started wondering if it was all the tourism that had brought the decline of this once mighty restaurant. As we finished dinner that night, my mother and Hoa continued to dispense their invaluable pho knowledge. When I ask Hoa what he, as a southern Vietnamese, thinks when people from his region say northern Vietnamese pho is too plain, he contemplated it for a minute before responding, "Kris, the Pho 24 pho was plain. It is flat. Hanoi pho is simple, but it's not plain. It's not flat. Just because something is simple, doesn't mean it's not good. Southern pho is more fatty, and that's what makes it taste so good. One is not better than the other if it is done correctly."

Walking to our cab, my mom turned to me and wistfully tells me the best description for great pho I've heard thus far, "You know you've eaten really good pho, when afterwards, you still feel kind of warm...and you're not too smelly."

See you all in Dallas next week. I'll be starting out in my backyard of Uptown and Medical District.

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