If you asked me for my favourite things to eat, I’m pretty sure Pho would be up there. I was first turned on to this deeply flavoured, hearty but aromatic (in the right hands,) concoction by Anthony Bourdain in one of his books called ‘How I became too cool a chef to bother cooking much anymore,’ or something like that. I don’t mean to be snide – ‘Kitchen Confidential’ was excellent. ‘A Cook’s Tour’ seemed to be exactly what someone who’s worked hard their whole life would do with the opportunities to have a bloody good time success afforded him. So fair play. And he can certainly spot a trend. I don’t know how much it was down to him, but nowadays you can’t move for joints offering beef noodle soups all over the world, from roadside stalls to upmarket malls. I’m now slightly worried there aren’t any left in Vietnam, but until I get round to ticking that particular country off my bucket list, I shall just have to eat their national dish elsewhere. I love it – my wife makes a brilliant one, there are pop ups offering speciality ones, huge chains offering dizzying varieties and what is so fascinating about it is that for what is ostensibly a fairly simple dish, it can accommodate so many permutations.
I eat a lot of Pho. It is comfort food, hangover cure, refreshing, satisfying and reassuring all in one go – all those things derived from the magical Asian alchemy of hot, sour, sweet and salty.
In the interests of full disclosure, I also thought of the word ‘Pholympics’ and decided I wanted to use it.
So, from now on, I’m going to keep a record of the Phos I try, and give them a star rating out of five. As a comedian, I know just how irritating that can be, so I feel it is time to annoy someone else with it. I’m even going to do halves, cos they’re really bloody infuriating. And I’m going to use a soup bowl emoji instead of actual stars, like some kind of irritating broth hipster, and you can’t even punch me because I am living far away inside the magical internet. So there.
1. My Pho, Liverpool.
Bit of a game of two halves this, which seems appropriate. However, as I was up in Liverpool for four days and went twice, that should tell you this funky little eatery is well worth a visit. There are bright murals on the wall, lots of good things on the menu, and a definite ring of authenticity. I have decided that for Pholympics I am always going to order the Phò Tái – with thinly sliced beef, partly for consistency but mainly because I always do anyway. First however, I ordered the tiger prawn summer rolls, a copper-bottomed Viet classic, which looked so amazingly appetizing when they were delivered, I chomped greedily in, only to be surprised by their almost complete tastelessness. This was weird, as everything looked so right, from the juicy little crustaceans in their pancakes, to the chopped red chillies in the dipping sauce. They just tasted a bit meh. Sorry, but that was that.
The pho arrived shortly after and was, well, decent. Not as deeply flavoured a broth as the very best, despite the boast of the ten hour cooking time and the need to taste before adding chillies. I added all my chillies, although, as usual, I then spent quite a lot of time fishing them all out again. Not bad at all, and certainly good enough, cheap enough and close enough to return for lunch the next day, when things took a definite step up. Unfortunately part of this involved a transfer to a fixed high stool that seemed to be ergonomically designed to prevent you from ever getting comfortable. However, some chicken summer rolls were a vast improvement on the previous day’s prawn version, and a plate of crispy chicken wings sent me flying back to a little street stall I used to hit with alarming regularity on a couple of trips I’ve made to Kuala Lumpur. These were excellent, and the soup was better too. Not that the first one was bad, but what this does speak of is a kitchen that makes everything fresh every day, and all I got was a little variety, which is frankly, what we spend most of our lives pining for.
Both bills came in at just under £20, and I’m pretty certain I’ll be popping in next time I’m in Liverpool. I would advise you to do the same. So, maybe not a gold medal to kick off Pholympics, but certainly a decent silver.
🍜 🍜 🍜 and a ½
2. Pho, Covent Garden
This is the big one. The bells and whistles venture-capitalist-backed-wannabe-mega-chain, the Nandos of the noodle soup world. Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Pret, Leon and every other specialized foodie start up wants to find its niche, expand furiously and make zillionaires of its founders and investors. And that is the society we live in, so you can moan about it whilst singing The Red Flag, or you can nip in between gigs to eat their food. Like many of the aforementioned establishments, Pho wants to be careful it doesn’t go the way of Byron, a huge success story that now appears to be back-pedalling at quite a rate on its initial expansion, and closing a significant number of branches. But hey, what do I know about spreadsheets, economic climates, market share and world domination? I just like soup. And Byron, as it happens.
I first came across Pho in Brighton, and you have to say they do what they do very well. There is an extensive menu of Vietnamese classics and the food is vibrant, fresh and tasty. They have grown quickly, and when you travel like I do, somewhere you are pretty much guaranteed a healthy portion of one of your favourite dishes is surely to be welcomed. I was zipping between gigs in Leicester Square and Drury Lane, hadn’t eaten and had half an hour to kill. My legs practically walked in by themselves.
I have written before (ad nauseum) about my annoyance at music in restaurants. Something in the background is fine, and I do like music – I am aware it can enhance an atmosphere. I just generally don’t like to be overwhelmed by it when I’m eating, especially if I’m with someone and want to have one of those old-fashioned things known as a conversation. I was on my own on this occasion, and I may well just be getting old, but I still don’t quite see why diners need to put up with banging techno quite so regularly. I do realize that the last sentence could quite happily just read ‘I may well just be getting old’ but if I want to turn into my dad, it’s my blog, and I’m very happy to do so. He’s a terribly nice chap.
But this was really about a smash and grab raid for some soup, so maybe the bpm were simply there to speed the process along. The place was full (it was 9:30 on a Saturday night,) but a small corner table was found for me almost immediately, and I ordered without needing to see a menu. The pho was dependably good – excellent, tender beef and a good selection of herbs including proper Thai basil. I was going to moan about the somewhat mingey portion of three bits of chopped chilli, until I chucked them in the broth to find it already had a reasonable kick of its own and promptly picked them out again. I also had a plate of Morning Glory – that fabulous, garlicky water spinach that I could eat by the plateful, but always slightly annoys me by being priced between £6-8, which seems a bit stiff for what is essentially a side order.
I have to say, in this instance, it was also very heavy on sinewy stalks, which may have been a reflection of what was left by the time of night I was eating. It still tasted good, and I suppose may well have given my digestive tract a healthier workout than usual, which has led me to a possible interpretation of how it got its name that I really don’t need to share here. So, not the best, and I do still get slightly irritated by the long handled wooden spoons they insist on giving you for your pho. I know it’s their thing, and I know it was probably what Tristan and Jocinta like, actually ate the soup with in this, uh, fabulous little noodle bar, where they rubbed shoulders with genuine Vietnamese and had their, you know, epiPHOny in downtown Saigon in ’03 – but I’ve never liked them.
That is personal prejudice, as is the fact that I genuinely applaud what Pho does; there is a great atmosphere, service tends towards the impeccable and the pricing is generally reasonable – under £20 for a filling and satisfying meal. I am no fan of chains, but when you’re on the road as much as I am, a good one that does something you like very well is to be treasured. The delightful waitress also gave me two tokens for free Phos at any of their outlets, which not only explains why I will be back sooner than later, it also explains the extra half star they lost on account of some slightly difficult spinach.
Walked all the way through the snow on a freezing Monday night to find it closed with no explanation and therefore no way of using one of my vouchers. Had to settle for sushi instead of a warming bowl of pho. No stars/bowls whatsoever as I’m feeling vindictive.
To the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for what was a lovely month of shows, food and company in a city I have visited a couple of times, but would never say I knew well. There is another blog on the way about some of the fabulous food we ate there, but, as I am updating Pholympics first, I thought it was quite important to mention we appeared to visit Pho heaven while we were there.
My cousin has lived in Australia with his wife and two daughters for many years and kindly offered to put us up for the duration of the Festival. When I asked him where exactly he lived he said,
And I said,
“That sounds nice,”
To which he replied, “Yes. It does.”
Sunshine is not venerated by Melbournians. It is a little loved suburb to which the nickname ‘Scumshine’ has unfortunately been attached, and provided me with quite a nice little opening routine for some of my shows. I think you’re asking for trouble calling somewhere ‘Sunshine’ in the first place, confirmed by the fact there used to be a gritty Aussie soap/drama set there which was rather more The Bill than Downton Abbey. But, in fairness, like all suburbs within a short train ride from a big city, it appears to be on the gentrify, so to speak, and we actually became very fond of it. One of its biggest selling points, apart from the delightful free accommodation afforded us by the kindness of my cousin and his family, was the biggest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants on the high street I have ever seen. I have not been to Hanoi, but I imagine even they would be run close. On my first day I popped into one deli to pick up some Banh Mi for lunch, and on Day 2 we went for Pho at Pho Hien Saigon.
It was absolutely excellent. There were some other dishes on the menu, but we went straight in with some excellent prawn summer rolls and Phò Táis. There were even three sizes. I only ordered the large once, as even I struggled, but the medium was ample and it was as near to a perfect rendition of the dish as I can ever remember eating. There was so much that was good about the place – one of the waitresses slicing up mounds of fiery red chillies in the corner, the tenderest rare steak gently poaching in the broth as you ate, free tea on the tables. I could not fault it.
In fact, it was so unimpeachable, I think we went back about eight times. We developed a routine order, also including some lovely little prawn spring rolls that came with crisp lettuce leaves and a fabulous dipping sauce – mostly fish sauce and chilli, but with shards of carrot and just the perfect combination of sweet, sour, salty and hot to compliment the fish and the pastry. We were in Pho heaven.
Having said how many other restaurants there were, we really should have widened our net further, but once you find perfection, it is difficult to look elsewhere. We tried one other – Côdô, and it just wasn’t anywhere near as good. A greasier, less beefy broth, the noodles a little over cooked, the beef tougher. They had some decent ground beef parcels and water spinach, but I was in love, and it wasn’t with Côdô.
If you are ever in Melbourne, it is unlikely you will make the trip to Sunshine unless you have a specific reason to go, but I would suggest that Pho Hien Saigon really is worth the trip. Hell, typing this from my office in Hertford, I’m even tempted to just jump back on a plane now. You can fault my lack of imagination, but when you have a whole blog dedicated to one type of soup, and you find the perfect incarnation of that soup, you will be fully aware that a lack of imagination is someone else’s problem, and that the five bowls of soup under this review are for Saigon, who could do no wrong in my eyes, and not Côdô, who could. I am already plotting my return to The Melbourne Comedy Festival, and if I’m honest, it’s not entirely for the comedy.