Yes, it’s true. I have become one of those people.
What kind of person? The kind of annoying and self-righteous noodle soup aficionado who insists on correcting people’s pronunciation when they talk about Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup, that’s who.
“Uh not to be pedantic, but actually it’s pronounced ‘fuh’, not ‘foe’. That’s right, ‘fuh’. Sure, it’s spelled “Pho”, but that’s not how you say it. It’s one of those little details that brings out the OCD in an anal-retentive. Like me.
Pho, or Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup, is one of those things that when it is done well, is transcendent. The French have had a long history in Vietnam and the word ‘pho’ comes from the French ‘pot-au-feu,’ literally ‘fire pot,’ but really the term meant ‘beef stew.’ The Vietnamese took this beef stew idea and ran with it.
Seemingly simple enough to make, it consists of broth, rice stick noodles, a slice or two of onion, and various cuts of beef (sometimes chicken). It almost always comes served with a side plate of bean sprouts, a couple of sprigs of fresh basil leaves, a slice or two of green chili, and a wedge of lime. This dish is all about the broth.
The broth should be absolutely clear, and you should be able to detect subtle notes of star anise, clove, and cinnamon. Sometimes daikon, that long white Asian radish, is evident as well. The noodles should be cooked but not mushy, and the herbs absolutely vibrant and fresh. In Asia this is usually a breakfast dish, but truth be told, there is no bad time for a bowl of majesty…
Vancouver has become ‘Pho City.’ You can’t swing a cat in this town without hitting a pho restaurant. They are more ubiquitous than Starbucks, and their coffee is better to boot.
For the last few months, I’ve been commuting part-time into downtown for work, and being an ertstwhile gastronaut, one of my first challenges was to secure enough good lunch spots to allow me to satisfy my various cravings and not break the bank.
In my first week of wearing the corporate yoke of oppression, I was fortunate to discover Ha Long Bay on Pender Street. It’s a tiny hole-in-the-wall (notice a theme here?) that always has lineups out the door at lunchtime, which was my first clue that this place had it going on. You can sit at one of the five seats at the counter, or jockey for a table.
Of course they have some other Vietnamese staples like grilled pork and vermicelli, spring rolls, salad rolls and such, but for me, it’s all about the pho. You can’t go wrong in ordering the number 1 house special, pho. It has slices of rare beef, well-done beef brisket, beef balls (balls of ground beef, not the prairie oyster variety), and tripe. I happen to like tripe a great deal, but if you’re not partial to it there are many other combinations to try.
When the soup arrives, you slide all those fresh bean sprouts into it, tear off the basil leaves and stir, squeeze the lime wedge on top, and perhaps add the slice of chili. Some might opt for drizzling a little extra chili oil on top of the soup. On your now-empty plate, add a healthy squeeze of Sriracha chili sauce for dipping the beef bits into. Then it’s time to get to get down to business…
When the weather is crappy and rainy, and your mood is as dark as the cloud cover above, pho provides the perfrect anathema to what ails. Ha Long Bay has helped turn many a cold day around for me, and I highly recommend it. Great staff, great service, and a great lunch for less than $12.
Oh, and be sure to order an iced coffee with condensed milk, and let it seep through into your glass. Stir it around, and add ice cubes. You’ll never go to Starbucks again.
Ha Long Bay
430 W Pender Street