Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day One in HCMC (Day Six in Vietnam, Plus a Phodown on
Address: 303 – 305 Võ Văn Tần, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Date & time of visit: November 26th 2013 + 1:00pm
Price (only one size): 55,000 dong (~$2.75 CAD)
Broth: 9.5 | Beef: 9.5 | Noodle: 9 | Condiment: 10 | Service/atmosphere: 8.5 | Overall: 9.3
Broth: 7.5 | Beef: 8.5 | Noodle: 8.5 | Condiment: 10 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 8.7
Overall Rating: 9.3
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 3.38
Write-up from Jason:
Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the seventh part of the story. It’s also a goddamned phodown.
So when we last left our intrepid travelers, they had pushed through a long day in Hoi An and De Nang, and were waiting patiently for a red-eye to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Well fortunately, I was one of those intrepid travelers (surprise!), and so I can fill the rest from there.
After about an hour delay, our plane finally departed and we arrived in HCMC in the early morning. Still worried about cab scams, I had done a great deal of research on how to get a legit cab from the domestic terminal. Turns out it wasn’t a big deal as none of the cabs seemed eager to pick us up, let alone scam us. So we just queued up and were charged a reasonable rate (according to the Lonely Planet) to our modest hotel, the Pink Tulip, in the main backpacker area of HCMC. The only real complication was that the gate was down, leading us to think there must be another entrance (because how could a hotel go in lockdown mode when guests need to come in and out?). Instead, we banged on it and a young man who was inside watching TV opened the gate and checked us in.
The Pink Tulip is rather bare bones, but it was dead cheap (about $30 CAD a night) and included breakfast. The next morning we learned that the breakfast was far from a throw-in. It’s made fresh to order and that morning I had a terrific melange of fresh fruits (banana, dragon fruit, papaya and others), yogurt, granola and fresh squeezed watermelon juice. I think Mikey got something similar.
Service was also excellent. The morning-shift worker provided a useful (and eventually, well-worn) map of the area highlighting the various sights of interest (e.g., The War Remnant Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral). I also got some restaurant recommendations that turned out to be touristy restaurants. This was something we faced the entire trip – helpful people who assumed we wouldn’t like destinations providing a more authentic experiences. In fact, we were interested in pho, and in particular, pho like the locals have.
Fortunately, I was able to find an English language website that detailed HCMC’s pho scene that pointed us squarely to Pho Le. And guess what? It was only about half a mile away!
Pho Le was a revelation. Gia Truyen is still clearly the best northern style pho I’ve had, but if we’re just talking pho in general, it’s a tough call. And Le is the best southern style pho I’ve had, and that comparison not at all close.
In terms of atmosphere, it’s not like Gia Truyen‘s holed-out mission style, and more resembles a pho restaurant you’d find in any North American city. That said, it was cleaner than a lot of Vietnamese eateries, which in the midst of a long trip is appreciated
But down to business, this broth was pretty much everything I look for in a southern style pho. The spicing was strong and in perfect balance. Just being in the vicinity of the soup you got a real cinnamon and clove kick. A lot of time such aggressive spicing is used to mask a weak broth but that was not the case here. It didn’t approach the sheer concentration of Gia Truyen, but the umami was strong with this one. It had a meaty – almost gaminess – that is nearly impossible to find outside of Vietnam.
The condiments were similarly excellent, a perfect ten in both my and Mikey’s book. In terms of the fresh ingredients, the basil, sawtooth and… You know what, just have a look for yourself:
That, dear readers, is what we in the food journalism industry call ridinky donk.
The sauces were similarly good, featuring a house-made chili oil. Simply put, Pho Le’s condiment game is beyond reproach.
And now on to the nitpicking. The beef here is excellent and comes in every combination under the sun, but was not quite as fresh as I had at Gia Truyen. Noodles, and I think this is just a matter of preference because it was true of nearly every pho in Vietnam, were well beyond al dente. So I docked Le in both of those respects. Let me reiterate: nitpicking.
The rest of the day in HCMC was exciting. We saw Notre Dame and the War Remnants Museum. The latter was a sobering but enriching experience. We also prepaid for a cooking class the next day.
Dinner was at Com Ga Gau Nam, a Vietnamese-Chinese joint known for its chicken rice. We went here because we thought soup for every meal couldn’t be good for us. The chicken rice was indeed some of the freshest I’ve had, and an eggplant dish was fortifying. But on a day when I had the best pho of my life, it’s hard to not see everything else as an afterthought.