323 Phạm Ngũ Lão, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão
You know when you recommend a place, and its bloody marvellous, and then friends go there a couple months later and go "Huh? WTF is so great about that?"... and invariably you find out the chef quit or the place is under new management, or that you just have really bad taste.
I discovered this place 2 years ago via an old lady who ran my Airbnb who said "Ignore the tourists, the locals are all on the 2nd and 3rd floor because this is the best in Saigon". And bloody hell she was right. I went multiple times, took friends, recommended it to friends, had generally only positive feedback and was so looking forward to trying it again except, it was not great when I went last week. (my previous review). However, sometimes you have to give it another go, and tonight I did... and by far this was the greatest bowl of Pho I have ever eaten in my life.
The broth was divine, the noodles, the brisket, the accompaniments, the sauces, and thinly sliced onions, I cannot fault a single thing on this dish, and therefore stick strongly to the fact that Pho Quynh is going to be almost impossible to beat ever.
(31 Trương Định - Bến Thành, Quận 1)
Not to be confused with Pho 54, this place near Ben Thanh Market was recommended by many local websites. Funnily enough, my grab driver uttered something in Vietnamese when I jumped off there and I will never know if he was saying "STAY AWAY" or "GOOD CHOICE". Regardless of his misunderstood yelpings, I found a table and decided to go for the brisket + raw beef Pho since they had already run out of the "special".
First thing I do when a bowl of Pho arrives at the table is not to reach for the condiments, or herbs, or sauces, or anything, but just dip my spoon in and taste the broth. After-all herbs are pretty much the same all over, beef is beef (in varying qualities), hot sauces are usually bog-standard, chillis are incalculably similar in such establishments, and the noodles are usually either the thin ones or the thick ones, but it's rice noodles so there is very little to distinguish apart from the cooking. The secret of a good Pho is 90% in the broth. Some broths hit you with flavour and then decimate your palate after 6 sips, some are so thin and tasteless that the longer you try to find anything worth writing home about, the less you find.... and then there are the bowls that at first you think "Hmm, not amazing but ok"... and the longer you dive down, adding some lime juice and chillis, or herbs after the first few sips, then you find yourself enjoying what tasted bland before (I don't know whether this is to the credit of the chef, or customer for making a so-so bowl taste good with his/her own additions). Quynh and Hung manage that balance without having to add anything to the bowl, but 1954 was definitely the third best I have tasted after a vast foray into the top rated (and some lesser rated) places in Ho Chi Minh. I admit, I did have to add quite a lot of chillis + chilli sauce which I normally don't do, but then suddenly it tasted really good.
I would definitely go back and try the special one day.
(8a/2b2 Thái Văn Lung, Bến Nghé, Quận 1)
Authenticity of local food always throws up a lot of arguments.
- Is it palatable for the western taste.
- Should they alter their food to make it more accessible?
In Ho Chi Minh, there is a small enclave predominantly made for the huge Japanese ex-pat and business community that frequent the area. For this reason, the food they make here is 100% in keeping with what Japanese people like, and they are not watering it down to appeal to a few curious tourists. Having spent a lot of time in Japan, and eaten a lot of bowls of ramen this can be both good news and bad (for me). Good in the sense that I like a lot of what the Japanese find palatable, but also, they definitely have a tendency to like things "Rich", "Fatty", "Oily", "Heavy-taste", which can translate as being "I think i'm going to be sick after half a bowl". This is one of those establishments.
Before I ordered, the waitress gave me a card in English saying "This soup is for Japan taste, so maybe foreign think it too salt or rich". Well, I took my chance, and the problems were not the saltiness of the broth (even tho it was intensely salty, well, I did order the Shio-Tonkotsu knowingly), but the fact that it had very little other characteristics other than salt. It lacked the depth, the umami, of other great Ramens in the same area (Tomidaya + Danbo are both exceptional). The egg was a shade under so it still had "snotty-white parts" but tasted good, the noodles were bog standard, the pork was chewier than I like but fairly decent, and the wood-ear mushrooms were much more "toothsome" than i've experienced anywhere before. All in all it was an experience, and a place I am glad I tried, but won't be going back to because regardless of whether the textures or tastes were not to "our" palate, there also is the fact about good or bad TASTING food. This was not great.
(260C Pasteur, Street, Ward 8, Quận 3)
Doing this labour of love entails trying a lot of different places, and only finding a few real gems. That is pretty much the journey of life too. Having had so many amazing bowls of ramen or soup at "chain restaurants" in Japan and Asia, I am not necessarily put off by the term. However, mom + pop stores specialising in one certain style, almost always beat out the competition.
This is true in the case for Hoa (a chain). I was originally going to try Minh, but they close at 11 am and I flew in last night and needed my ugly sleep. I caught a Grab Moto up to Pasteur, almost smacked straight into a brand new BMW, then had a man literally 1 cm from running into me on the back of the bike until I shouted and he looked up in the last split second, got to the place, noticed it was packed with locals, found a table and ordered.
The noodles were over-cooked. The broth was that insipid sweet clear broth that can sometimes pack such a punch, but didn't at all... it didn't even taste that great when I threw in the bean sprouts, basil, culantro, chilli's and a dose of hot sauce. This was an exercise in futility. Nothing could save it.
I politely ate about half, then threw in the towel and headed back to my room. Screw the reviews, next bowl of Pho I am having is going to be at Quynh!!! The undisputed GODS OF PHO IN SAIGON!!!!!!