1 - Pho 24
Nothing makes me fussy like Pho. Vietnam's national dish, a belchworthy beef broth, belongs in scuzzy shacks, floors littered with broken chopsticks and cheap napkins and NOT the poncey tables of nouvelle cuisine, restaurants with chamber music or the 'ethnic' section of the Hilton breakfast buffet. For this reason I was reluctant to check out Pho 24 at 5 Nguyen Thiep Street in District 1. My Top 10 list of pho joints has remained stalled at a Top 2 after bumping up the belt notches on a mammoth '30 different soup kitchens' soup test over the years. Most pho, in my experience, is average at best.
Both my top 2 are up the road in Hanoi: 13 Lo Duc Street, Hanoi & 2 Le Van Huu Street, Hanoi. These two pho-tastic soup shacks are within 30 seconds walk from each other and are well worth sniffin' out. Devoid of clueless foreign tourists, packed to the rafters with sino-soup slurpers and oozing grubby charm. Long may their paint peel, their floors gather grime and their service snarl.
Pho 24, on the other manicured & moisturised hand, is all uniformed waiters, polished table tops, dimmed lighting, chefs with real chef's hats, china toothpick holders, logo embossed place mats and chopstick holders.
This is not pho as I know it - there are 9 beef/1 chicken varieties on offer for chrissakes - but prejudices aside, how's the soup? Well... much as it pains me to say it, Pho 24 just brings my list to 7 shy of a Top 10.
The thing about Pho 24, I guess, is they've taken a street food and given it respectability, class or maybe just a fancy facade - you choose. But, what they have done is new and a first for Vietnam - at least to my knowledge. (In Saigon, there is also Pho 2000 - more of which later this week) - but it's Pho 24 which, I think, has set the standard for the rest to follow.
Pho is a noodle soup and comes in either its beef variety - Pho bo - or chicken - Pho ga. The chicken variety has been missing from the streets of Vietnam since Asian bird flu struck the region in early 2004, but has started to make a tentative comeback in the last week or two. The beef variety consists of thinly sliced beef and fresh flat noodles, sitting in a steaming stock, heavy of star anise, meaty vapours and sprinkled with spring onions.
In the south the broth often comes with a side of herbs, bean sprouts, chili slivers, half a lemon and maybe sliced raw onions. In the north, many folk, myself included, like to crack a raw egg into the soup. Although Pho is known as a northern dish, the Saigonese have added a certain sophistication to their broth which is missing from the bogstandard raw and alive deal in the north. I am reliably told that the key difference is; the Saigonese regularly skim the fat from the 100l vats the broth cooks in, go easy on the fish sauce - nuoc mam and know how to spice with a gentle touch. I'm far from being an expert, but the southern version does taste 'fancier', even if my base nature has an instinctive preference for Hanoi's basic broth.
Meanwhile, back at Pho 24...
To cut to the chase... I simply cannot find fault with these guys. The key is the soup stock. The steamy beams of aroma rising from a Pho 24 bowl demand immediate devouring. This is the most flavour-filled Pho I have found in Saigon (so far). And so it should be. At 24,000VD a bowl (my Hanoi faves set me back 7,000VD and that's with the added egg) OK-OK- I'm paying for the service, the setting - but still...
If they could knacker up the furnishings, smash the odd bowl, splinter the chopsticks, add a couple of rats and allow spitting on the floor they might just pip the number one slot. But for now, they is just too posh. The battle lines are drawn. Expect more pho blogs soon. View the business card.