Golden Turtle (redux)

Golden Turtle Ext

Golden Turtle
Address: 125 Ossington; Toronto, Ontario
Date & time of visit: May 8th 2016 + 1:00pm
Price (large): $8.50 CAD

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 5.5 | Beef: 7 | Noodle: 8.5 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 7.4

LRW Class Average

Broth: 8.4 | Beef: 7.9 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 8.4 | Service/atmosphere: 7.5 | Overall: 8

Overall Rating: 7.7
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 0.91

Write-up from Jason:

Stay Golden, Turtle

Things can get lost when you break an experience down into its constituent elements. I recently started watching Netflix’s Stranger Things. The show is highly derivative, drawing from works like ET, Goonies and Super 8. The latter of those films is itself a nostalgia-filtered vision of what it was like to be a nerd growing up in the 1980s. We often condemn the derivative, but I’m not sure that’s fair when it comes to such loving recreations of simpler times (that, in actuality, weren’t that simple).

The same can be said for Golden Turtle, which despite being a less-than-faithful copy of a Saigon pho joint, provides an altogether enjoyable pho experience. With an expert front-of-house staff, breezy open dining room, and patio, Golden Turtle is an inviting destination for a convivial gathering. And that’s really what my last visit was all about.

U of T Law’s premier former legal research and writing (LRW) students and I met this past Mothers Day for a reunion pho lunch. I deeply enjoyed hearing what everyone was up to, and truly, the pho was not the most important part of the lunch. But, this being a phodown, we have to talk about it. You’ll see above that I listed my scores along with the average of the eight students that attended. You’ll also see that, regardless of what you think about my LRW teaching skills, I didn’t pass along much of my pho philosophy.

As I alluded to in my (likely misguided) analogy to Stranger Things, I thought Golden Turtle was lacking when it came to fundamentals (e.g., weak broth, not enough beef, limited condiments) but provided a great overall experience. The students disagreed, finding the service and atmosphere to be Golden Turtle’s weakest point. There are at least two conclusions one might draw from this. Maybe, like legal writing, phodowns are something you learn by doing. And, if we did enough, you’d see more agreement. Or maybe the atmosphere really wasn’t that great, and I let my own nostalgia colour my judgments. For now, the data support both hypotheses.

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Que Ling

Que ling

Que Ling Restaurant
Address: 248 Boulton Avenue; Toronto, Ontario
Date & time of visit: June 20th 2015 + 3:00pm
Price (large): $5.75 CAD

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 7 | Beef: 6 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 9 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 7.8

Overall Rating: 7.8
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 1.36

Write-up from Jason:

Solo Phodown! Solo! Phodown! Solo Phodown!

One of the only rules of a phodown is that one shall not phodown alone – a simple rule, easily broken. And like Mal Reynolds, I aim to misbehave.

You know what, that’s not 100% accurate. I’m not some handsome rogue pho-blogger but rather a guy who had a pho by himself and wants to ‘down it before it gets lost in the ether. A big damn hero I am not.

A couple of weeks ago while recovering from a gum graft surgery and thus restricted to foods of the softer sort, I found myself in one of my favorite parts of town – Toronto’s Chinatown East – and hankering for a bowl of the good stuff. And while I just called this area Chinatown East, there’s a significant number of Vietnamese joints around. Rose makes a hell of a banh mi and don’t forget Sarah Mac and I ‘downed Mi Mi a couple of years ago.

But on this day I had my sights trained on what I had always viewed as a more distinctive restaurant. Que Ling is situated just off Gerrard, on a side street but still visible from the main drag. The structure looks like it ought to house a car rental office and instead somehow holds about ten tables, a counter an a small cooking area. The other patrons were a Vietnamese family and a group of three young skateboarders. All were treated with an equal level of cheer and care.

Que ling

The first thing I’d point out about Que Ling is that it’s the cheapest pho I’ve seen in Toronto. While large phos will often cost you around $7-8, Que Ling’s large rings in at $5.75. The downside is that real estate savings aren’t the only reason Que Ling can charge so little. This is a noodle-heavy, beef-light pho. The beef is perfectly fine, but the plain lack of quantity was the main reason I knocked Que Ling’s beef score down.

On the other hand, the condiment platter was just about spot on. There was no doubt about the freshness of the herbs and sprouts, a spicy thai bird pepper made an appearance, and there was even saw-tooth. Points were deducted, however, for there only being one saw tooth. Not cool. Let’s make saw-tooth a regular thing in Toronto phos and not a nominal addition. I’ve got a kickstarter in the early phases and am pleased with the progress so far.

The lack of beef was seemingly made up for by an abundance of noodles, which were well-executed, but you know, sometimes you get a bit tired of noodles.

I left the broth for last as it was the most challenging. Hoping that I had stumbled upon a hidden gem, and taking note of the exceptional atmosphere and condiment plate, I wanted to love the broth here. Sadly, it was middle of the road. That’s not to say there’s no grace to be found in this broth – someone clearly knows what he or she is doing with the spicing. This wasn’t a haphazard broth, there just wasn’t enough umami. And in place of beefiness, there was salt, and lots of it.

In the end, this was an enjoyable experience on a day when I deeply wished for an enjoyable experience. And it may well be the best value play for pho in town. It’s just not the best pho in town.

Heynong man.

Pho 75 (Arlington, Virginia)

Pho 75 Ext

Pho 75
Address: 1721 Wilson Boulevard; Arlington, VA 22209
Date & time of visit: December 26th 2013 + 2:00pm
Price (only one size): $8.00 USD

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 5 | Beef: 7 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 8.5 | Overall: 7.1

Mikey

Broth: 6.5 | Beef: 8 | Noodle: 8.5 | Condiment: 8.5 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 8.1

Steve

Broth: 9 | Beef: 8 | Noodle: 9 | Condiment: 9 | Service/atmosphere: 7 | Overall: 8.4

Dad

Broth: 10 | Beef: 10 | Noodle: 10 | Condiment: 10 | Service/atmosphere: 10 | Overall: 10

Mom

Broth: 8 | Beef: 7 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 10 | Service/atmosphere: 10 | Overall: 8.4

Overall Rating: 8.4
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 1.05

Write-up from Jason:

A Good, Old-Fashioned Family Phodown!

Pho 75 Arlington Menu

This one has been a long time coming.

A few weeks ago I wrote about learning to appreciate pho in North America after having a transformative (trans-pho-mative?) experience in Vietnam. It was something of a pretentious thing to write, but when I did come back for a pho at my childhood pho shop in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore just how different my perception was. This post is about that first pho back.

Pho 75 is the pho I grew up with. It’s widely considered one of the best, if not the best, pho in the DC-area, which is home to large Vietnamese population. I spent a lot of time at this place as a kid and in many ways it’s my gauge for what good pho is.

So it was a rather disturbing experience late last year when I came back and it just didn’t taste the same. The sights and sounds of Pho 75 were the comforting vestiges of my youth, but the broth – once my standard for pho broth – fell flat. There wasn’t the pure funky umami that I had gotten used to in Vietnam.

That said, we’ve never featured a full family phodown on this website and now is the time. My family has been coming to Pho 75 for over 15 years so let’s see what they thought.

Pho 75 You know condiments

My dad, the pho-patriarch of the family, is know for his brand loyalty. He gave it tens across the board. A strong statement from a strong man.

Mom was a bit more moderate, finding faults with the essence of this pho but loving the soft-components (i.e., condiment and service/atmosphere).

Steve apparently had issues with the service here (he likes fancy Italian restaurants) but was very positive otherwise.

Finally, Mikey, my traveling companion in Vietnam and brother from the same mother largely echoed my concerns, finding the broth seriously lacking.

Bottom Line: Pho 75 is still one of the best phos in North America.

Despite all of this, maybe the most telling score is a behavioral one. We will be back.

Noodle City (San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles)

Noodle City SGV Exterior Shot

Noodle City
Address: 848 East Garvey, Monterey Park, CA 91755
Date & time of visit: July 14th 2014 + 7:45pm
Price (only one size): $6.05 USD

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 7.5 | Beef: 7.5 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 8 | Overall: 7.6

Mikey

Broth: 8 | Beef: 7 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 8 | Service/atmosphere: 8 | Overall: 7.8

Overall Rating: 7.7
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 1.27

Write-up from Jason:

IT’S BEEN an exercise in acclimatization getting back into pho after my grand trip to Vietnam, where I had the best pho of my life. Soon after, my family went to a favorite pho haunt of ours during the holiday season and it just wasn’t the same. I had learned what the broth of a true pho auteur tastes like and there was no going back.

Noodle City SGV condiments 2.0

Time has passed and like a broken heart, sometimes just forgetting is the best medicine. By way of analogy, imagine dating a person you deem to be perfect in every way. For me, that’s star of stage and screen, Kristin Kreuk.

Kristin Kreuk

What happens is you go on a couple of dates, leaving your head spinning over how perfect she is. The worst case scenario has occurred – instead of just enjoying yourself and showing her how great you are, you’re singularly motivated to simply not mess up. This type of behavior, as we all know, is definitionally anathema to him or her liking you back.

Sooner or later the inevitable happens – you get dumped. How do you go back to dating normal girls? How do you go back to paying $8.50 US for a bowl of pho at Pho 75 in Arlington, Virginia?

The answer is simple: you don’t. You can’t. At least not right away.

Time is the only answer.

Noodle City SGV Pho

You reconnect with your friends. You tell your story about how you flirted with perfection. You ruminate on where things went wrong. Could you have been wittier? Was she feigning interest in your obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer the whole time? What kind of guy is obsessed with BtVS anyway?

Then you start to forget. At first maybe you don’t want to. You kind of like being the sad guy and maybe you feel like there is still hope as long as you don’t forget. But then you realize you have to. You stop following her on Facebook and eventually unfriend her. You replace thoughts of her with rosier ones: Neil Gaiman books; days at the beach; Felicia Day. Eventually days go by in which you realize you didn’t think of her at all. At then, maybe, it’s time to go back to Pho 75.

Well, over the past week and a half I’ve been visiting my Chin-to-Chin traveling partner in California. The other night we decided to go out for tacos at one of his favorite joints, Colonia Taco Lounge. We drove about half an hour to get there only to find out that it’s closed on Mondays. After a bit of haggling, Mikey informed me that he thought pho would settle his stomach and guess what(?), one of the San Gabriel Valley’s best phos is not far away! I agreed.

It was time to start moving on.

And you know what? It wasn’t that bad.

Mikey and I agreed very closely on this pho so the review will be rather streamlined. First, the service was tight. We were greeted warmly and the server was vigilant throughout the meal, taking orders, delivering the pho and refilling waters. Noodle City’s condiment game was similarly strong, but not without its holes. My main gripe was that they teased the presence of peppers and saw-tooth but never went all the way. We got two measly leaves of saw-tooth and one sliver of jalapeno. If you are going to go for it, go all the way Noodle City!

Noodle City SGV condiments

Keeping with its namesake, this restaurant’s noodle program was its strength. Mikey and I both thought that the noodles came out al dente and without a hint of clump, albeit with something of a powdery undercooked taste we couldn’t quite identify. The broth was underwhelming, but above-average for a North American joint. The dark color was discomforting, but there was a hint of richness and coherent spicing. Finally in terms of beef, it wasn’t very fresh but was generous, especially with the flank and tendon.

Overall, this was not a great pho, but it was an important one for me. I’m ready to start moving on.

Goodbye Vietnam.

Goodbye Kristin.

Chin to Chin Recap

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
“I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate”

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the eleventh and final part of the story.

I Have Always Felt Reinforced and Stimulated by the Temperate Climate

The above is a quote from a quote from David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It always stuck with me – maybe because of the diction. Probably not for the meaning. I never really gave the latter a whole lot of thought.

Goodnight vietnam 007

But having both lived in Hong Kong during the tail end of the summer, and experiencing several different climates as Mikey and I traveled from Hanoi’s downright chilly winter to sweaty, steamy Saigon, I think I finally got that quote’s full meaning. For those not familiar with Landes’ thesis, he uses a variety of cultural and anthropological measures to explain Western exceptionalism. My friend and erstwhile colleague Azim gave it to me, describing it as a companion piece to Guns, Germs and Steel which takes a more biological position. The quote is from one colonialist’s experience in the tropics, in particular how sapping he found the hot weather.

good morning vietnam 075

I’ve always been more of a summer guy, and it gets damned hot in DC in the Summer. I’ve also been to China in the Summer and experienced some steamy weather there. But I don’t think I ever noticed just how draining continued exposure to hot and humid weather can be before living in Hong Kong. Maybe people get used to it. I never did.

It’s also a good organizational mechanism for this recap, where Mikey and I started with boundless energy in Hanoi and eventually found ourselves taking long, long air-con breaks in HCMC.

I never really described it in earnest, but the trip started in Hong Kong, where Mikey and I luxuriated for about a day and half. Most of the ground has been covered elsewhere in the blog as we dined mostly on dim sum and cha chaan teng.

From there we spent a few days in Hanoi, where we tried desperately to make the most of every moment. It’s where I have the fondest memories and a place I would truly like to return. The old town is a very walkable area, a place where it’s easy to get lost but not entirely unpleasant when that occurs. It’s also where I had the most memorable pho experience of my life. Ha Long bay was breathtaking at times, but it’s hard to not wish we had been there in the summer, when chilly moments in the boat would likely be replaced with splashing in the sea.

From the North, we took a train down to De Nang. Mikey would probably want a redo on this one (he got sick on the train), but I loved it. Rushing through narrow passages in cities and innumerable rice paddies, the train trip made me feel more connected to the people and places of Vietnam than any other mode of travel.

I think we’d both count our first night in De Nang as the most memorable, mainly for the adorable little girl who brought us beer she bought at a local convenience store. We’d also both count touristy De Nang as a low point, both for narrowly making it out of there and for the lack of authentic food.

Finally, Saigon was as fast-paced, gritty and sweaty as we imagined. Still it was home to one of the best phos of my life, and for that I will always have fond memories.

As with any good trip, it wasn’t just the places we saw and foods we ate, but the people we met. Jonnie was an excellent tour guide in Ha Long Bay and I still think about him frequently. There was something his story about going to university, finishing early and his very strong pride in his work that makes him a memorable character. I’ll also never forget him breaking into song several times during the tour. Mr. Henry and Mr. David, two other travelers in Ha Long Bay also made a strong impression both for their long history of traveling and strong sense of camaraderie.

Goodnight vietnam 053

Annie, the (male) owner of the Pink Tulip, was also quite a character. We had read quite a bit about him as he replies to EVERY Trip Advisor review. This actually attracted us a great deal to the hotel as it was clear he cared a great deal about his business. It was also hard not to chuckle at the testy back-and-forths between him and guests with very innocuous complaints. A theme was guests’ discomfort with pushy massage salesmen working out of the hotel. Annie was adamant that the two businesses were separate but just shared space in the lobby. But in our experience this was a tenuous distinction as the night worker at the hotel also worked at the massage parlor during the day. Oh well.

Finally, there was Mr. Tong at the Royal Palace Hotel in Hanoi. While a smidge pushier than the staffers at the Pink Tulip, Mr. Tong was incredibly helpful and seemingly quite concerned that we left with a good impression of Hanoi.

Despite being exhausted by the end of the trip, Chin to Chin in Vietnam proved a transformative experience and one I hope to repeat one day.

Pho Hung (Ho Chi Minh City)

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day Two in HCMC (Day Seven in Vietnam, Plus a Phodown on Pho Hung)
Address: 10 Nguyễn Thị Nghĩa, Bến Thành, HCMC Vietnam
Date & time of visit: November 27th 2013 + 9:00pm
Price (only one size): ~55,000 dong (~$2.75 CAD) (menu)

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 8.5 | Beef: 8.5 | Noodle: 7 | Condiment: 9 | Service/atmosphere: 8 | Overall: 8.2

Mikey

Broth: 6.5 | Beef: 7.5 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 8 | Service/atmosphere: 7 | Overall: 7.4

Overall Rating: 7.8
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 2.84

Pho Hung Ext

Write-up from Jason:

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the eighth part of the story. It’s also a goddamned phodown.

This day in HCMC largely centered around a class at the redoubtable Vietnam Cookery Center. Mikey and I woke up quite early and hoofed it down to the Ben Thanh Market where we were met by our enthusiastic tour guide, Su, as well as two other students (Eli and Elia, a couple from Israel). Su gave us a thorough tour of the market, which although purveying traditional Vietnamese ingredients, is largely geared towards tourists. Fortunately, Su gets a locals-only deal there. We tried a variety of herbs and candies that boggled the mind and senses.

Ben Thanh Market in HCMC

From there we made our way over to the Cookery Center itself. It was only a few blocks but Su insisted on getting us a cab, which was easier said than done – most drivers didn’t want to take us so short a distance! But we got there safe and sound.

Morning Glory Salad @ the Vietnamese Cookery Centre

It turns out Eli and Elia had shelled out for the professional package so we split off into two groups with me and Mikey preparing a morning glory salad, a clay-pot chili chicken and pho bo. Eli made pretty much every dish under the damned sun. Fortunately, he is both a skilled home chef and a generous fellow, and happily shared the fruits of his efforts.

Pho @ the Vietnamese Cookery Centre

Learning new knife techniques, working with some new flavors, and generally horsing around, Mikey and I had a fantastic time at the cookery center. The highlight was assembling our own bowls of pho at the end of the session. I say assembling because most of the work was done by the staff – we only observed as they boiled the bones, added the spices and really did all the grunt work. Still, it was cool to assemble our own bowls. It’s tough to judge my own pho, but if I had to phodown it I’d say:

Broth: 7
Beef: 7
Noodle: 7.5
Condiment: 6 (we didn’t get a whole lot)
Service & Atmosphere: 9

Not bad for my first try.

The only negative of the day (for me) was when Su and our chef instructor told us over beers that Mikey was a better chef.   I’m sure Mikey would see it differently.

After the lesson, Mikey and I relaxed at the hotel room for a bit and then set up shop over at Trung Nguyen Coffee, enjoying their fast wifi and excellent iced coffee. Like Ca Phe Pho Co, it was an excellent spot for some serious live blogging. And how did we follow that up? You guessed it: a phodown!

Our destination this day was a local pho chain called Pho Hung (actually, it has branches in the states as well). Our hotel had recommended it after we asked for a locals pho, which we took as a good sign.

Pho Hung Pho

Pho Hung ended up being my least favorite pho of the trip (not counting my own) but is as good as anything I’ve had in North America. The broth was of the same style as Le but just didn’t have the depth and umami. Condiments, again, were just awesome. This is where Vietnam just sets the standard – big bunches of herbs, excellent sauces, and even fried doughnuts (for purchase and dunking). Noodles were the weak point. I’ve come to expect overcooked noodles in Vietnam and here it was the worst – well beyond al dente. Service was good, though, especially when I spied a staffer chase down a customer who left his cell phone behind.

Condiments at Pho Hung

We wound up our second to last day in Vietnam with a pair of banh mys and some Bia Saigon in our hotel.

Snack

Pho Le

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day One in HCMC (Day Six in Vietnam, Plus a Phodown on
Pho Le)
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)

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 9.5 | Beef: 9.5 | Noodle: 9 | Condiment: 10 | Service/atmosphere: 8.5 | Overall: 9.3

Mikey

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

Pho Le Ext

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.

Watermelon Juice Pink Tulip

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.

Pho Le Ho Chi Minh City Pho

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:

Pho Le Condiments

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.

Pho Le Menu

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.

Chicken Rice Ext

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.

Hainanese chicken rice

Day Three in Hanoi

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day Three in Hanoi: Buses and Trains

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the third part of the story.

Day three in Hanoi was largely spent on a bus to the Halong Bay. A tremendous tourist destination billed as one of the wonders of the world, I hold that would have been a lot better in the Summer. As it was, it was cold and misty – not at all like my trip to Phi Phi about a month prior.

Still, Mikey and I had a good time meeting a bus full of interesting travelers and enjoying the commentary from our young and earnest travel guide “Johnny” (referencing Johnnie Walker) who even sang a couple of Vietnamese songs for us.

Halong Bay Kissing Cocks

Despite the musical interlude, the highlight of the trip was probably the kayak through some caves in the Bay. We also got to see the famous kissing cock islands and had a nice lunch of spring rolls, cold French fries, stir fried squid and vegetables, whole steamed fish, tofu, rice and fruit. The final stop, before another brutal three hour bus ride back to Hanoi were some caves, mostly interesting for running into a mysterious and alluring fellow traveler named Jessie. She was the source of a great deal of late-night rumination.

Upon returning back to civilization, Mikey charted a course back Gia Truyen where we sampled, perhaps for the last time, the impeccable pho described earlier. The rest of the night was mostly about logistics. We made it back to the Royal Palace, booked a hotel in De Nang, got directions from the De Nang train station to the new hotel, and used the last free wifi for a while.

Mikey picked up a pate banh my on the way to the train station, which he swears was one of the best he’s had. Indeed, an elderly woman, well practiced in the art of banh my made it and was quite generous with the pate.

Train

And here we are, on the train. Mikey is snoozing. The older gentleman is yelling into his phone. A younger guy sleeping under Mikey’s bunk is on his iPad. And I’m feeling another nap coming on.

Pho Gia Truyen

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
A Phodown in Vietnam
Pho Gia Truyen
Address: 49 Bat Dan, Hanoi Vietnam
Date & time of visit: November 22nd 2013 + 8:00pm
Price (only one size): 50,000 dong (~$2.50 CAD)

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 9.5 | Beef: 9 | Noodle: 9.5 | Condiment: 8 | Service/atmosphere: 10 | Overall: 9.2

Mikey

Broth: 8 | Beef: 9 | Noodle: 9.5 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 10 | Overall: 8.7

Overall Rating: 8.95
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 3.58

Pho Gia Truyen Exterior

Write-up from Jason:

Although I’ve travelled a bit in the Far East, I had never been to Vietnam until now. And let’s be real for a change – I’ve been putting myself out there as a pho expert for quite a while now with little in actual credentials to back up that claim. So it was about time that I tried pho where it was born, because if there was no Vietnam, there would be no pho. And if pho didn’t exist, neither would the phodown. And what kind of pathetic shell of a man would I be in that case?

So, on this day, I finally tried pho’s platonic form, if you will (and please do).

Mikey and I arrived in Hanoi late Thursday afternoon, worked out our visas at the airport and were transported to the highly-recommended Royal Palace Hotel. The friendly hotel manager, Mr. Tong, got us set up, hard sold us on a few tour packages, and treated Mikey and I to a watermelon juice and a lemonade, respectively (and respectfully, for that matter).

After all that preamble, we struck out to a pho restaurant highly recommended by both the internet and Lonely Planet for making what some claim to be the best pho in Hanoi. A true family-run enterprise, here an aging pho master, his wife, and son run a store front with limited seating in Hanoi’s old town. Mikey navigated Hanoi’s labyrinthine side streets ably and we found our way to what I can only describe as the pho Mecca.

Pho Gia Truyen Interior

Well, I can actually describe it a lot of different ways: white walls with wooden wainscoting; wooden tables and stools; a single fan; an old mission; a man standing behind a tiny stand with dry-aged beef on his right, stock pots furiously boiling on his left nearly overborne by the flames from an overclocked burner; a wife; she plates the noodles, garnishes, pours in the lovingly made broth; he chops raw meat; he chops the dry-aged brisket; he plates the meat; we take the pho to our table.

Simply put, it was the best pho I ever had with Mikey and I agreeing on nearly every component except the broth.

Pho Gia Truyen Pho

I’ll start with the beef, fresh and plentiful (given the scale of the portion, which was extremely small by western standards but a steal at $2.50 CAD). I couldn’t knock the beef much. Noodles were also near perfection with clumpiness a non-issue and the doneness just shade beyond al dente.

Condiments were the toughest grade for me because I’m used to a very different standard. Northern-style pho is condiment-sparse, while the Southern brews are regularly accompanied by mounds of fresh herbs, peppers and lime. I’ve only been to a Northern pho once before, for the Vancouver Phodown (now defunct). I forget how I dealt with the lack of condiments there yet still held to the empirical rigor of the phodown. Here, I’m aided by the fact that the fried savory doughnuts you can get with pho here are pre-fried and cold (some serve fresh ones), which is an easy downgrade. Still, some homemade chili sauce and freshly chopped yellow and red pepper at the table were a fun way to spice up the pho towards the end of the meal.

Broth is where Mikey and I disagreed most, although we do agree broth is always the most important factor. I gave it a 9.5 and Mikey gave it an 8. His reasoning is that while he’s probably never had better, he can imagine better. Personally, I think this comes down to this being his first phodown.

From my point-of-view, this is my benchmark for broth going forward. The pho-master here has been interviewed before, noting how important the bones are to his enterprise and how hard it is to get it right day after day. He’s dead on. This broth is superb.

The sheer time put into is remarkable, the broth coming out nearly gelatinous in texture, easily the richest I’ve ever had. The balance is also remarkable, the only possible ding coming from a restrained hand with the spicing (although this is a feature of the North as well). The lack of condiments and other spice (cardamom, etc) is overcome by the generous garnish of onion and cilantro, which go no farther than highlighting the complexity of the broth. It’s a masterpiece.

Beer at Pho Gia Truyen

In terms of the always challenging service/atmosphere category, Mikey and I agreed. It’s a ten.
The place is a well-oiled machine. When you go to the restaurant of people so serious about their craft, there is always the danger they’ll be gruff and curmudgeonly (e.g., the Soup Nazi). The family here is friendly and inviting, clearly proud of their creation. The son who brings beer (at ~75 cents a pop) is kind and attentive. And who wouldn’t want to eat pho out of a building that seems like an old church?

Pho Gia Truyen you should get down here and try it for yourself, before they decide to stop making it.

Nha Trang (Hong Kong)

Eastern Promises 8: A Phodown in Hong Kong (!)

easternpromises

Nha Trang at 3 Tai Yue Avenue, Taikoo Shing; call (852) 907-8033

Nha Trangh Ext Hong Kong

Ratings:

Broth: 6.5 | Beef: 9 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 2 | Service/atmosphere: 8 | Overall: 6.7

Write-up from Jason:

It had to happen sooner or later. Truly the most portable concept of its time, The Phodown has gone from Vancouver, to Santa Barbara, to Toronto, and now Hong Kong.

Nha Trang is a popular and well-respected Vietnamese chain here in Hong Kong. Ever since I arrived about a month ago I’ve been hearing about it and anticipating what its pho would be like. My expectation was of something a bit more refined than the standard pho, but perhaps without the potency of a mom-and-pop brew (i.e., not as rich and deep, but with fresh condiments and al dente noodles).

I was mostly right.

I went to the location near the Taikoo Centre near my current abode in Quarry Baby during the tea set hours (many restaurants offer discounted prices from around 2-5pm on weekdays). Nha boasts a great deal – an entree plus app. or drinks for about $45 (or about $8-9 CAD). For some reason I got a drink – iced tea with lime – despite that fact that the appetizers looked interesting. I’ve been making lots of bad decisions lately.

HK dreams 011

Regardless, I was here for the pho. And man, was it fucking weird. First I should say that I’m not sure this is pho. The flavor of the broth tasted nothing like the pho broth I’m familiar with, lacking any discernible clove, cinnamon or anise. Instead the predominant flavor was mirepoix, evoking strong memories of a beef stew our neighbor Edna used to make us as kids. The beef flavor was extremely pronounced as well, tasting almost hearty. It was a delicious broth. But was it pho?

HK dreams 012

Condiments were a complete bust, consisting only of a lime slice and some thai bird peppers. A guy next to me asked for some fish sauce, which he pushed over to me when he saw my displeasure with the condiment situation. I considered asking for sriacha and hoisin, but I didn’t see any at other tables or at the server’s stations, so I thought the inevitable confusion would be fruitless. Other than the lime and peppers, the only other condiment was a sprig of Thai basil on top of the pho, which really takes all the customization out of the picture.

Other than the above oddities, everything else was standard to very good. The beef was some of the best I’ve had, fresh and tasting of pure beef. It’s a strange thing to say, but I’ve had phos where the beef tasted dried out and unbeeflike. As expected, the noodles were well executed.

The service was deadly efficient, like most Hong Kong joints, but impersonal.

I know what you postmodern jerks thinking – I’m importing a foreign pho standard and trying to impose it on the local pho here. But I just don’t think that’s true. I’ve seen photos of pho in Vietnam that feature huge plates of fresh herbs. I think Nha is simply missing the boat here, favoring style over substance when it comes to condiments. In terms of the broth, it’s harder to say. They are certainly doing something different and interesting. But if the pho flavor profile isn’t there, it’s hard to do a phodown.