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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.

Nice bush

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.


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I'm slowly going through your fantastic blog and I'm completely fascinated. Great pics and posts. The more I read, the more I feel I should take some time to visit Vietnam. Maybe you should try to get sponsored by the local tourism board ;-).

A guess regarding the two unknown herbs in the pics, I believe the long one is Ngo guai or saw teeth herb while the one to the right could be Vietnamese coriander, rau ram.

Thanks for your compliments - much appreciated;) Advertising... it will come... someone's gotta pay for bills and time... :o

About those herbs. Not sure offhand, but since I blogged this post I have discovered Andrea Nguyen's excellent herb primer. I refer to that wheneveer I get stuck.

Thanks for sharing your wonderful Vietnamese food tour. My wife and I always enjoyed what we thought were authentic. Vietnamese restaurants in New York until we got to taste the real thing in Vietnam about a year and a half ago. Now that we're back home, we long for it. It's ironic that a city that prides itself on its ethnic diversity and "foodie" culture has hardly anything to offer in the way of Vietnamese delights.

Fortunately for us, our daughter lives on the south side of Philadelphia, which has a thriving Vietnamese community with real sandwich shops, real pho redolent of anise and meat, and sprawling supermarkets with plenty of authentic ingredients so we can make our own summer rolls or banh mee xao at home.

Richnhil - thanks for dropping by. It's funny how Vietnamese food doesn't travel. I know a Vietnamese restauranteur in Europe who says she can't cook the Vietnamese way, 'cos no-one would buy it. Customers *think* they know what Vitenamese/Chinese food is, but really they're just getting a bastardised version that isn't really anything. Kinda scary.

However, in the Midlands of Britain a similar thing happened with Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants started by the large immigrant population there. The cuisine was never 'what it was back home' but it has now evolved into something new and quite different. The cultural mix of Brits, first and second generation immigrants and experimentation has really benefitted the cooking there. I don't know why that isn't the case with Vietnamese/Chinese dishes? maybe it is... it's been a while since I tried any of Oriental food outside the Orient...

One last point even here in Vietnam some of the ingredients are very localised and cannot be found anywhere else in the country. Let alone on the streets of Manhattan.

I stumbled into this blog googling for some Vietnamese dish and I've been stuck reading it. I miss these food so.
I agree with you; it's pretty near impossible finding real Vietnamese food outside VN.
I'm not a fan of pho, but my hubby is (and he's a Thai!). MSG gives me the worst backache, plus being southern, I'm more fond of hu tieu and mi. Every time we go out for pho or for Vietnamese food here in NY/NJ area, the tired and bruised greenery stuff that they bring out really put me off.
There are actually 4 herbs in your picture: ngo gai, rau hung cay (spearmint, green), rau que (basil, green with purplish stems), and rau om. It's really odd that rau om was served with pho. Like you say, rau om is heavily perfumed. We only use it chopped up to flavor/garnish canh chua (hot and sour soup). Without rau om, canh chua just isn't canh chua. But with pho ?????

Thx Van. I actually learned the herb names later in the blog, look at the bun cha listings... Although I must admit I do ahve to keep referrign back to that as i easily forget the details.

I'm not the biggest pho fan either. Some people think I am, but I have it maybe once per month that's all.

hi, do you know if you can find the leaves needed to make bo la lot(beef rolled in leaves) in the states? If not is there a suitable substitute?

Many thanks

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