3 - Pho Cao Van
After experiencing some major soup scrimping on my last dip into pho-land I was hoping for better when I pulled up at Pho Cao Van, 25 Mac Dinh Chi in District 1. I very nearly skipped this joint as the place was packed to the fluorescent light bulbs with not a seat free. Rather than take the easy option and keep walking I decided to wait out the stares until one of Saigon's many speed-eaters had slurped his last noodle and upped and left. After all, this many pho-fans can't be wrong, can they?
Comfortably ensconced at the rear of this non-too shabby, intimate diner I ordered Pho Chin bo. The Chin bo means cooked beef brisket, rather than my other regular choice, Tai bo, which is the raw beef variety (the raw meat cooks in the broth) I tend to steer clear of raw beef in places in which a Food Hygienist's nerves would jangle too loudly. Actually, Cao Van isn't that rough, but I probably wouldn't take my mother there.
Normally bad-pho warning signs can appear when the hedgerow pickings arrive, but Cao Van doesn't disappoint. 3 varieties, including clean, fresh basil, no limp leaves, just bright greenery. Sorry, don't know the names of the other 2, including the one on the right in the picture which I like, but is powerfully perfumed and will gladly rape your pho of all that meaty goodness if you overdo it - best go easy on this fella. The other leaf, the long straight leaf on the left, has a none too intrusive sharp veggie tang, no problem with him in my soup even if we're not on first name terms. For some reason Vietnamese men think this particular leaf gives them more... err... staying power...
As for the pho itself, when it landed on my aluminium table I felt sure I was onto a winner. More soup, less noodle - nice. Good to see a generous handful of spring onions along for the ride too. The all important stock was a blinder - no overpowering star anise or watery non event here - just bags of bite, tonnes of depth and most importantly for me - heavy overtones of meat cutting through all the added flavours. Also, this gal goes light on the MSG front - I can't say that about too many chefs in Saigon - and it's not every bowl of pho in this town that gets me tilting to grab the last drop. In private it would be a 'down spoons, bowl to mouth moment', but you've got to have some standards when you're out in society.
If I had to fault the pho at Cao Van, it would be the beef. Well cooked, tasty and thankfully not chewy - but - please - drop the fat - babe. Many a Vietnamese slurper enjoys a lump of fat on their beef, but not me. And it can get a wee bit fiddly separating beef from animal lard with chopsticks and a spoon or worse, by hand, mid-mastication - not cool. However I'll forgive her, she's got a nice smile and really excellent beef in fleapit-pho land is an oxymoron - as and when it evolves, I will let you know.
Right now, at 10,000VD a bowl, I'll be back for more and I am happy to welcome Cao Van into the Pho top 10 - well done.