Why has it taken me so long to try pho? Truly, it beats me. I have no idea. I am completely unaware. All that I know is that I have been a fool for not partaking in pho sooner because it is just so darn flavourful and comforting, but somehow fresh and light. It’s a dish that’s in perfect harmonic balance and that’s tough to find. Bottom line, pho is ph@$%ing phantastic.
My usual Sunday consists of a stop at UFO Restaurant, a quaint convenience store turned family restaurant tucked away from the bustle of a busy Toronto street. After a night of one too many Sols, picklebacks and vodka sodas, the morning after can look grim. But, there is one thing that can cure a hangover from hell: a can of Coca-Cola and a bahn mi from UFO. Yet on my last drunken morn’, I found myself contemplating another one of the restaurant’s specialty dishes: pho.
I like soup, but I don’t know if I can totally consider myself a soup girl. I also don’t know if I can stomach a savoury soup following the previous night’s liquid diet. So while I did opt for my Sunday banh mi, steaming bowls of soup kept circulating around in my mind, so much so that the next day when the weather was grey and rainy, it seemed like the ideal time to give pho a shot.
After consulting Google, the closest pho restaurant to me happened to be Pho Dau Bo, a Vietnamese chain with locations all over the city (not very Slow Food of me, but I am a pho newbie, sorry). Walking in, the space was very much the same vibe as UFO: bare bones decor, each table topped with a tray of chopsticks, soup spoons, napkins and bottles of Kikkoman soy sauce, glass jars of homemade chili oil and half-empty bottles of hoisin.
It doesn't take much browsing of the menu to figure out that pho would definitely be the signature dish to order and with over a hundred different varieties, I figured a classic rare beef noodle soup would excite the senses all too well. And man, did it ever!
With a rich beef stock and notes of ginger, cilantro and basil, the taste was incredibly hearty all the while being refreshing. Doctoring up my pho (as I’ve seen others do), I squeezed in some lime juice, added some bean sprouts, a healthy spoonful of chili oil and a squirt of hoisin…crazy—I can’t stress this enough—crazy delicious!
I loved the partial crunch of the freshly-added bean sprouts and watching the thin pink slices of beef turn colour in the warmth of the broth. Every bite seemed to be more flavourful than the next, and I was sad to see no more soup in my bowl after a maddening five minutes of slurping and fanagling bean sprouts and beef between my chopsticks.
While it seemed like ramen was all the rage a few years back, I’ve noted that the cool kids have now started flocking to pho. Though these dishes have been around forever in Asian cultures, as the world of social media knows, these staples of cultural cuisine only gain notoriety at the hands of white influencers and chefs and whoever else deems a foreign cuisine as such—an unfortunate reality, especially given that these cultural foods represent so much more than just a meal. I digress…
Pronounced “fuh”, pho is a light Vietnamese rice noodle dish served in an herbal broth, whereas ramen is a Japanese wheat noodle dish served in a much heartier broth. Comparing the two, pho appears to be the more delicate of the two, however each is spectacular in its own regard.
Because I am a glutton, I always need to try a few different things when I go out to eat. So, along with a steaming bowl of pho, I also ordered goi cuon tom thit, cold summer rolls filled with shrimp, bbq pork, vermicelli and lettuce greens and served with a crunchy peanut sauce. Delicious pork, and a super light bite, I loved these rolls but then again, I’m always a sucker for summer rolls.
I also decided to try the banh xeo, a vibrant yellow crepe that gets its colour from turmeric powder. Fried until perfectly crispy and then folded over a mix of vegetables, pork and shrimp, this Vietnamese crepe was doused in a vinegar and fish sauce concoction and was probably the most decadent of the offerings I tasted. Still loaded with all sorts of veggies, this giant crepe is ideal for sharing—something I wish I’d known before ordering all these dishes. But, as I said, I am a glutton for punishment. It didn’t take long to polish everything off…it’s about eating and taking a brief pause so that you can rebuild the stamina to keep eating.
Leaving with a full belly, but not feeling disgustingly full, I decided that baby’s first pho was a grand success. Nourishing and soothing, Vietnamese pho is seriously healing (and maybe it could be the real hangover cure). Definitely my new rainy day staple, I can’t wait to check out all the other pho spots nearby!