In fairness, when it comes to authenticity they can stake a strong claim on this account — by way of France or possibly even China, pho originated in Nam Dinh, less than 100km from the capital. But using this as proof of pho not being as good down south is like saying that because football (soccer) was invented in England, the English should play it best.
Let’s not go there.
So we decided to see for ourselves. With one of us coming from a Vietnamese community in California, and the other spending oh-too-much time sitting at pho restaurants on foot-high stools in Hanoi, we took to the streets and ate at five of the best pho restaurants in Saigon. Can you get good pho bo, beef pho, in Vietnam’s largest city? And if so, where is best?
Pho Tau Bay
433-435 Ly Thai To, Q10
Described in a recent Wall Street Journal article as the place where truckers go for pho, when we arrived at this joint that has been serving Saigon since 1953, the only truckers we could see were on, erm, motorbikes.
Nonetheless, served up with an ample side plate of fresh herbs, the pho here was quickly polished off — the broth opulent with that slight sweetness typical of southern cooking, the beef soft and tender. The noodles were on the better side of tasty, too, thinner than their northern cousins and slightly al dente.
Do a noodle al dente in the north and you’ll get a whack over the ‘who’s your uncle’. But down south if it comes too soft and soggy, it’s just not worth eating. If Pho Tau Bay is a representative of Saigon pho, then it’s one to take home.
288/M1 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q3
Go down an alley, cross a mini square and then head straight down another alley. At the end you will find Pho Dau, one of the few pho joints in the city selling northern style pho, or so it claims.
It’s not Nam Dinh authentic — I can vouch for that — and the broth, although typically northern with its bone marrow-based taste and not the slightest trace of sweetness, was too fatty for my liking. But what they do have is northern-style chilli sauce, with a range of other typical ‘up-north’ ingredients on the side. And the meat — boiled flank beef (bo nam) — was cooked more casserole-style than is typical. Yet it was fatty but rich and oh-so-tender it seemed to melt on the tongue.
Just don’t expect that plate of fresh herbs. Here you get sliced onions.
This was a darn good bowl of goodness, but not the best. So far the bragging rights were heading the way of Hanoi.
Pho Phu Vuong
339 Le Van Sy, Tan Binh
“Ah,” said Kyle as he dug into his bowl of bo tai nam. “This is just how it tastes back home.”
Unashamedly southern, with even the signage on the wall claiming the use of southern spices, this joint on the edge of Phu Nhuan and Tan Binh has gained itself some well-earned fame. And rightly so. If you like the spices, sweetness and flavourings of the south, and want an unfatty broth bursting with flavour, then Phu Vuong should be your destination. It is this taste that has spread around the world — the broth sold at Phu Vuong is the one known in the US, Australia and France. And of course California.
But for this writer, it was a step too far. A few slurps in, it was satisfying, but after half a bowl, no thanks. Too much sugar.
260C Pasteur, Q3
My last two visits to Pho Hoa were unrewarding. My memory isn’t quite clear why, but I left each time feeling this joint open since the 1960s was overrated. On this occasion I was ready to change my opinion.
Everything here in this spotlessly clean eatery is supersized, from the huge bowl of pho and perfectly sliced pieces of beef through to the gargantuan plate of well-cleaned, painstakingly selected fresh herbs. They also have banh quay — Chinese bread sticks — on the side, the only place so far.
But here it’s all about the broth, its subtle use of spices placing it somewhere in between the versions favoured by north and south. For me, the best so far. I lapped up my bowl of bo tai nam with gusto. But Kyle went for bo vien, beef balls, and wasn’t as impressed.
Pho Phu Gia
146E Ly Chinh Thang, Q3
If you want true northern pho, the type you may associate with the famous joint on Ly Quoc Su in Hanoi, then Phu Gia should be your destination. From the garlic vinegar and chilli sauce on the side through to the slightly stale, short banh quay and the soggier, fatter pho noodles, everything here cries out northern Vietnam. Even the broth — savoury, unfatty and far from sweet — tasted like it had been shipped in that very day from Hanoi. Amazing.
“This is my favourite so far,” quipped Kyle as he polished off his bowl of the good stuff. It was his first true taste of Hanoi-style pho. For me it was a well-constructed, solid bowl of soup, but didn’t hit the heights of Pho Hoa. Which shows that preferences depend on the palate. You CAN get good pho in Saigon, but which particular style grabs your personal set of taste buds is subjective.
A number of other Saigon pho restaurants come high in the ratings. So, here are few that should be tried along with the joints visited for this article.
413-415 Nguyen Trai, Q5
Pho Cao Van
25 Mac Dinh Chi, Q1
7 Ly Chinh Thang, Q3
323 Pham Ngu Lao, Q1