Phở – the archetypal dish of Vietnam.
Travellers from far and wide come to Vietnam, hoping that they will eat the best bowl of Phở. We’ve been in Saigon for a long time, and we think we’ve found the best bowl of Phở in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It’s a super local place where you’ll rarely see a tourist at a table.
First- we need to explain what makes one bowl of pho better than another. There’s a few key components to Phở, which are combined in a bowl for one outstanding meal. You’ll be craving this dish for a long time after returning home- guaranteed.
It’s all about the broth! This stock is packed with flavour, which is skillfully derived from bones and a variety of spices cooked over a long period of time. Rich and flavourful spices such as cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and cardamom are just a few of the the key players in this dish. Vegetarian broth is typically made with daikon radish rather than bones, and also has an amazing flavour. It’s easy to find veggie pho on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar calendar, when a majority of Buddhist Vietnamese only eat vegetarian food.
Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of rice, so it’s no surprise that most dishes have at least one component derived from the crop. In Phở, this component is the rice noodles (never egg noodles!). They are soft and delicate, and only take a few seconds to cook so should always be made to order.
There are pretty much two types of Phở- chicken (ga) or beef (bo). However, if you decide for beef Phở- Phở bo in Vietnamese- there’s a whole slew of options. My personal favourite is Phở Tái, where they put thinly sliced raw beef into the Phở right before serving it, so it cooks while you stir it up. This way the beef is super tender and delicious. In the photo below is Phở Bò Viên. This has beef tendons (a sort of crunchy gelatinous texture) and beef meatballs. It’s good but it definitely has more variety in textures than Phở Tái. If you’re going local- try Phở Bò Viên. Vietnamese love all kinds of textures – chewy, crunchy, crispy, and even some that are difficult to describe!
Phở Ga (chicken) is also delicious. It usually has a variety of cuts of chicken, but you can specify dark or white meat if you have a preference. This will be one of the best chicken noodle soups you’ve ever had! It has a delicate flavour with a chicken-based clear broth. It’s also topped with onions and scallions, and goes great with a handful of extra toppings.
This is where Phở gets phun. In the North, it’s common to use just a few leaves of Thai basil and a splash of lime in the sweet broth. In the South, you’re given a massive plate of fresh herbs, a heap of bean sprouts, and a plate of limes & chili in the broth that’s more savory than the North’s. In Central Vietnam- as you can guess- it’s kind of a mix between North and South with an in-between amount of greens and a sweeter broth. Of course, people have different opinions, but we love Southern-style Phở.
How to eat Phở
Step 1 – Lime. Squeeze one or 2 halves of lime into your bowl depending on the size of bowl of Phở you ordered.
Step 2 – Herbs. Usually you’re given a plate of Thai Basil and Vietnamese basil. Since we love the Saigon-style pho which is loaded with these freshly picked herbs, I recommend grabbing one stalk of each herb and tearing the leaves off into your bowl.
Step 3 – Bean sprouts. These add a great crunch to a bowl of Phở.
Step 4 - Chili. If you want to try Phở like the locals do, and don’t mind a bit of a kick, I recommend putting in a few slices of fresh chili to help spice up the broth. You can eat them too, but be prepared for a little heat wave.
Step 5 – Chili sauce. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? Well this step is not for the faint-hearted. It’s how the locals eat their Phở, and adds a nice flavour and an extra level of kick on top of the fresh chilis. A lot of Vietnamese love their chili in many forms – fresh chili, chili sauce, chili flakes, and chili paste.
Step 6 – Chow down on the amazing dish of noodles! It’s salty, with a touch of sweetness, and has great textures that will leave you craving for another bowl the following day. If you’re eating beef phở, dip the slices of beef into a mixture of chili & hoisin sauce as seen in the toppings photo above.
So where’s the best Phở in Saigon??
Our favourite Pho in Saigon is Phở Thái Sơn, located at 174 Le Lai Street (see map below). It’s a simple place with no fancy decorations or anything, but they make a killer bowl of Phở. Our staff eats here frequently. It’s located just a 5 minute walk from our office, Cafe Zoom. It’s called Pho Thai Son. The front looks like this. The cart is usually out front or to the side. Be prepared for an awesome meal!
P.S. Don’t forget to order an ice cold Tra Da (Iced green tea) to drink on the side!