I thought I would experience more “damn that is delicious” moments on my year-long sabbatical to Asia.
While the food here is excellent, these epiphanies are few and far between.
The bowl of phở above, which yours truly gobbled in Ho Chi Minh City however can be counted as one of these moments.
I arrived at the rather upmarket restaurant (by Vietnamese standards anyway) one afternoon, at a less than acceptable time in Vietnam where most of the country shuts down between noon and 2pm for a casual siesta. By upmarket I mean there were proper chairs and you could even sit inside.
All of the lights were turned off and the owner’s son was slumped in his chair, lulled to sleep by a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
The owner himself was sitting directly in front of the fan, where the temperature inside the restaurant probably more than 40 degrees. He looked shocked when he saw Shan and I ask if we could order food.
Despite the long list of dishes on the menu, only two were available.
“Phở bò? Phở gà??”
Phở bò it was.
Now the phở in Saigon differs greatly from the bowls in the north towards Hanoi. Our friends in Hanoi swear by their phở and often talk as though the southerners only serve inferior noodle soups.
Basically, southern Vietnamese like to add more to their phở. Lime, bean sprouts, thai basil, hoisin and more, which results in a sweeter broth. This is the type of phở that is common in Sydney.
Anyway, back to Saigon. The owner shuffles around the kitchen, perhaps a bit dazed by our sudden arrival. He ambles over to a large fridge, which contains a beautiful piece of brisket.
I am shocked. In nearly three months while in Vietnam, we have never seen any sort of refrigeration in any street stall/restaurant.
I watch him work. A handful of noodles are dipped into boiling water and quickly taken out. Spring onion is finely chopped and brisket is carefully sliced. Broth is ladled from a pot with a capacity of at least 100 litres.
At this point I am sweating profusely. While Vietnam is hot, Saigon is a different beast. And here I was, waiting to eat a hot noodle soup for lunch. Go figure.
Our bowls of phở arrive and they look how they should. Noodles + broth + beef + herbs. Maybe it was the clean and simple taste of Hanoi phở that I was used to, but this unsuspecting dish in a standard neighbourhood eatery really blew my mind.
The noodles were perfect in all their bouncy glory. The brisket was meltingly tender and a wonderful balance of flesh and fat. And the broth was incredibly. Together, the combination made this bowl a triumph.
In Australia, we usually receive a plate of raw bean sprouts and coriander to add to our phở, but the owner gave me a plate of blanched bean sprouts, which is miles better in my opinion.
I could not stop to talk, or even think about anything else in the three minutes it took for me to finish.
In our short stay in Saigon, I went back to this place three times to eat phở. I wish I could eat it again and again and again.