Enraptured in idle conversation with the receptionist whilst awaiting a SIM card delivery, I turned the subject towards Pho. "Any places in Vung Tau that you would highly recommend?". She didn't hesitate for a second: " Minh Tam, it's the best! Local taste". Moments before leaving my room I had googled "Best Pho in Vung Tau" on a Vietnamese food site (not tripadvi-sore), and SNAP, Minh Tam had the highest ratings.
I walked into the small roadside shop, pointed at the bowl on the menu that I wanted, took my seat and smelled the divine broth wafting over while flies buzzed around in confusing patterns racing invisible prizes. First sip and I was a convert. Second sip, a religious nut. This was the bowl you hope to find everytime you enter a new shopfront or store. This exact bowl. Broth so clear, yet deep and unctuous in it's slimline perfection, noodles soft but textured, beef a little on the chewy side but lets not be negative. This is one of those bowls that would be served to you on your deathbed and you wouldn't even throw a glancing look towards impending death, you would shakily pour in as much broth as you could handle through your dentured mouth.
Only a handful of places on earth could come close to this. This is almost perfection.
A year ago I took some friends here and watched in reverence as they spooned silky broth to their lips and their facial expressions changed to utter glee. This time another friend was visiting and after spending some time at Kim Hideaway Bar we plodded off to get ramen.
I ordered the regular Tonkotsu with egg. As with memories, you sometimes doubt that it really was THAT good, and the slight shudder of fear begins to creep in after talking so highly of it. Fears were brushed aside after 1 tender dip into the divine porcine remnants. Everything about this bowl is perfection. Not one single goddamn complaint or excuse. Near perfection.
With 24 ingredients going into the secret broth, this mega-chain is spreading it's gospel of Pho to all corners of Vietnam. Despite multiple visits to the country, this was my first foray into the establishment.
Reasonably priced, rather decent broth for being a conglomerate, tender beef, decent noodles and the usual condiments and accompaniments.
If you're stuck for lunch and happen to walk past one of these, there are far worse places to appease your famishment than here.
Scarily enough, I awoke this morning with sleep heavy on my eyelids, considered my options, and found myself needing another bowl of Pho. The night before I had met a delightful Vietnamese girl at a bar who's boyfriend was a rich American-Vietnamese cocky idiot, so while he bragged to a fellow American about his business acumen, I stole tips off her for places to eat in Danang. This was the first place she recommended.
The interior left little to the imagination, the kind of place you'd imagine getting sick if you touched anything that wasn't over boiling point. I crossed myself out of habit rather than belief. A steaming bowl of broth, noodles, greens, onions and beef pieces arrived at my table and I dove in headfirst. Broth was rather complex, a tiny bit thin in flavour but you got hints of where this was going. Possibly if it was left reducing another couple of hours it would be spot on. The noodles were the usual fare, the beef a little on the scary side so I left most of it.
All things considered it was a decent bowl of Pho, and definitely the second best I had in Danang after the Container place that shook my stereotypes to their foundations.
I'm not kidding. It's called Pho Container aaaaaaand: It's in a replica ship container. All sounds a little bit too gimmicky for me, but the reviews were solid and being a 2 minute ride from the apartment I had to give it a go. Especially after yesterdays crushing disappointment, I needed to redeem Pho for Vietnam!
I decided to splash out and order the "Aussie Beef" bowl which was 1 dollar more expensive than the others, but turned out to be the size of a bathtub. Fear shot through my pores at the size of this behemoth landing at the table carried by strong arms. First impressions, this looked pukka. I stirred the broth a little and took my first sip, unadulterated. Bingo! It had that clear, rich, slightly sweet broth that I had come to know and love with hints of star anise and other spices coming through gently. I tore apart the basil, coriander, red chillis, bean sprouts and loaded my bowl ready for attack.
3/5th's of a way down I had to throw in the towel. This was fantastic food, I just couldn't manage any more. I made my excuses, took some photos and left with a stomach equal parts content and at breaking point.
Obviously the first thing i'm going to do when I land back in Vietnam (apart from having a power nap) is to seek out a bowl of Pho. I trustingly read some blogs, narrowed it down to this one to be the first victim of my serious withdrawals (they couldn't win), and hammered down highways on the back of a motorbike taxi dispensing life and death decisions in miliseconds and milimeters to spare. We arrived, all limbs intact, and I walked in to find the restaurant oddly empty.
The proprieter, a legend in these parts, with his massive grin and obvious limp came roving over to my table eager to see what this white boy wanted. I ordered the brisket pho, a Larue beer and sat back watching the torrent of traffic weaving it's way by. In distinct memory of some of the best bowls I have ever had, not that nostalgia can be a cheeky tart, but knowing full well what an epic bowl tastes like this was a crushing punch in the testicles. Now, on any given day in Oslo I would be donating blood to have a broth that came close to this (especially after Hai Cafe shut down), but the feverous lack of any depth of flavour was illuminated like a thin dress caught in headlights. The brisket was tougher than concrete, the fat lines were 70% of the "meat" and inedible in their nausea. The noodles were standard, so no inflammatory remarks can be aimed at them.
I had to start adding a host of unnecessaries: Tons of chili paste, pepper, even more herbs than was called for, vinegar, literally threw the kitchen sink at the bowl to make it sing in some particular way, even if that were a castrated Italian choirboy singing "Ave Maria" burdened by the knowledge that though his notes are clear, his lower half is missing some vital bits and pieces.
With sorrow making lines across my face I was forced to leave half the bowl, pay, try to fake a smile, and walk hastily in any which direction just to get away from the aftermath of a semi-disastrous meal.
5/10 (only after adding my own touches)
Having sworn off Khao Soi after eating 3 bowls in one day, I found myself unwillingly checking out one last spot since Andy Ricker said it was his favourite spot in Chiang Mai, and SP Chicken was closed.
Housed in a large, old wooden building this Khao Soi institution is barely a stones throw away from the ever popular (and too sweet) Samerjai. I ordered the chicken bowl, slightly recoiling when the words left my mouth. A cold glass of water was produced, and ten short minutes later a bowl set before my eyes. It looked good.
Personal taste aside this was a very good bowl of Khao Soi, however, for me it was a tad on the sweet side too. The curry sauce was packed with flavour and had a slightly thicker consistency than Islam, but lacked the altogether luxurious depth of Khun Yai. The noodles were proper, the meat was flavoured well, the side plates and chilli paste added texture, heat and complexity to the dish. However, all things aside, I see why Andy may love this place, but i'm a Khun Yai addict and will be forever more.
In true idiot abroad style, I actually got back to the hotel, drank some water, and decided to head out for one last bowl (3 in a morning) before retiring from Khao Soi for at least a few months.
Samerjai had featured on a lot of "Best Khao Soi" lists, been recommended by my Thai friend Amit, and also been highly recommended by another couple of "food-forward" people. I was starting to like sitting in the back of Grab taxis. The drivers barely talk to you, the cars are generally clean and the AC has been blasting all day. You can just gaze out the tinted windows and suffocate on life's emptiness for a brief spell.
Another out-of-the-way spot, housed in a huge canteen style building with rows of food stalls. The Khao Soi stand was right at the front, which is why the punters come here. I was served mightly quickly, but the food was steaming hot so that's always a plus. First look, I kinda knew where this was headed. It would taste good, but it would be too rich/creamy for me. Spot on.
The noodles were a solid bunch, the chicken was nice and flavoursome, the crunchy noodles on top were unsatisfactorily "sweet", and the broth had far too much coconut cream (or condensed milk) in it to deliver a deep punch. The flavours were all washed out in this creamy-sweet overload which did not abate when mounds of chilli paste were added.
I can see why people like this Khao Soi, the flavours were good but the over-riding flavour was sugar and cream. Two things I try to stay away from in everyday life.
Mark Wiens travels the world to eat. I do the same, but just don't appear on camera, or get paid for it. After he spent some time in Chiang Mai he concluded that this spot had the best Khao Soi by far of anywhere else in town. Not a man who's opinion I take lightly, I had to go try it out for myself, because of course: taste is subjective.
I finished off my superb bowl at Mae Sai, and hailed another Grab taxi, got stuck in a huge traffic jam and managed to find this tiny shack miles out of town down some small streets that the taxi driver actually felt unsure driving down "I don't think Khao Soi here"... "Yes, yes.. straight and right side".
Found it. The friendly old ladies were in good cheer. They were out of Chicken so I settled for pork Khao Soi since the North is famous for it's pink gold. Sorrow washed over my face like a slow monsoon. The contents of the bowl stared back at me almost mirroring my grief. Thin, watery soup lay speckled with dots of red oil, suspended above were some crispy noodles and pieces of pork that looked tired and rubbery. Truth be told, the most unforgiveable part of this bowl were the noodles, raw, undercooked, gluey, pasty noodles that immediately were pushed to one side. The soup had some flavour but lacked any real umami, thin and desireless. Pork slices were tangy but dry. I ate what I could of the crispy noodles before they too became sodden in neglect. Embarrassed about leaving 3/4 of the bowl, I walked into the kitchen and just handed the lady a 100 baht note and didn't wait for change.
As I hurtled down the street away from my own sins of gluttony, she shouted after me "Change go to poor children".. I smiled and waved back. At least one good thing came of the visit, but good food it wasn't.
Propped up at the counter at Sanmai Ramen, I took a moment to ask the chef if he had any recommendations about good Khao Soi joints in town. He thought for a moment, then said "Mae Sai does great beef bowl". I noted it down on my phone and went about my business for the next couple of days, always planning on visiting it at some point. Another random night 2 Thai chefs sat down next to me at a bar and started talking about food. I told them about my slight addiction to Khao Soi and they immediately beamed at me "Khao Soi Khun Yai, many many tourists but very good food".. I told them I ate there and it was spectacular, the other guy then blurted out "Khao Soi Mei Sai does very good beef version". Then and there started a cycle of 5 consecutive mornings where I tried to get up before they were closed, and failed miserably.
Today was the day! I set my alarm, headed out by Grab to hunt it down in the small soi baked on with sweltering heat. I grabbed a table (unfortunately had to share, it was packed), wrote down my order and sucked down on my ice cold coke to try regain some temperature balance within.
Bowl arrived. You knew it was going to be good. Slightly thinner "curry" than at Khun Yai, but packed with flavour. Incredibly tender beef that still kept its texture, great noodles, good crispy noodles, and a bloody hot chilli sauce to pour on if the broth was too tame.
Definitely worth tracking down since it's a little outside the main drag, but this bowl is up there, but just didn't have the depth to knock Khun Yai off it's throne.
So it's Loi Krathong, I barely realised. I woke up after days of speckling the porcelain after eating a streetfood Khao Soi that was definitely not worth the pain and agony. I feebly walked the 6 blocks to this ramen spot that featured highly on all the lists and lips. The place looked suspicious, however, presumptions aside I walked in, found a cool corner (insatiable heat), ordered the shoyu with bean sprouts and anxiously watched the chefs prepare.
The food came after a delay since 5 hungry Japanese revellers ordered just before me, however, the bowl was placed and I basked in its possibilities for a second, before raising my spoon and diving in.
To be fair the broth was acceptable... in that "could have been more flavour" way, but acceptable. The noodles were cooked well, sustaining some personality in their mesh of spiderweb constellations. Pork, rather tasty but rather chewy. FAAAAR too many bean sprouts in proportion to the rest, egg decent. The thing that brought it down a notch from a solid score, was the broth just lacked that little umami-kick that elevates everything. Be it more tare, MSG or tender loving care, I don't give a fuck... just give me the flavour and i'll be happy.
An altogether forgiveable effort, but there are far better ramen shops in this small town for those who are dependant on a bowl now and then.
As the Aussies would say: Yeah, Nah!
I wound up in yet another Grab taxi hurtling my way to the night market to try this Khao Soi place that always creeps onto top 10 lists in Chiang Mai. My driver was confused as to why it was called Islam? I didn't have an answer for him other than the owners were probably muslim (they were). He added that the world is going to hell because of the Chinese building hotels and casinos everywhere and putting locals out of work, I gently nodded.. hungry.
The spot was in a small soi, a giant place with a rather unnassuming facade, I wandered in, found a vantage point as far away from people as possible and ordered "Khao Soi Gai".
Within 2 minutes flat the food came. Worryingly fast. It wasn't hot, the chicken was tough, the noodles were cut into small pieces like kids spaghetti, the "crispy" noodles became mushy after 10 seconds, the curry soup was thin and uninspiring and doused with soy sauce so much that it overpowered everything else.
I left most of the bowl, paid, smiled and vowed to tick that one off the list and never return.
Another day, another adventure. This time the rain was a sheet of impenetrable glass, so I was forced to use a Grab taxi to seek out yet another Ramen place that lay untested and untried. I had read a lot of good feedback online, and it was highly rated despite its bizarre location.
The Grab driver had no idea where it was and the address didn't show up so I had to get off a couple blocks away and walk. Approaching the tiny soi where the place was stood an old lady who just looked at me and shouted "RAMEN?" and pointed. I walked in, was told I had to wait since it was packed (good sign), shown my ordering sheet, perused the menu, went for a spicy Tonkotsu to ward off the chills, and sat back waiting until a spot at the counter opened.
Within 10 minutes I was seated between 2 strangers (the fear started), my heart trembling at the thought of raising the spoon to my mouth and having the contents shake off in utter nerves. The bowl came, the chef spoke to me shortly asking "How the hell did you find this place?". He was Thai but had just left a head-chef position in New York to open a Ramen spot in his hometown. "This place desperately needs good ramen, they have everything else except that, and I hope I've created that now". I spooned in my first mouthful of broth. Excellent. The menma was on the sweet side but crunchy and good, the egg was perfectly marinated and cooked, the noodles totally decent but not amazing. The only thing that let it down slightly was the Chashu. It was quite firm and toothsome, which I can definitely forgive when the rest of the bowl tasted as it did.
I actually managed to clear the whole thing, paid, tipped, complimented the chef and headed off in the rain to order another cab back home to wait it out until calm was restored.
First things first. Wake up after a short and uneventful flight from Bangkok, head out into the blistering heat, walk 3 blocks and stand in line to eat what is reputed to be Chiang Mai's best Khao Soi. The line took about 10 minutes to dissipate, but the food took at least 30 minutes to come. Hungry revellers sitting anxiously twiddling thumbs around the table in expectation anxiety.
Our group were all slightly worse for wear and therefore needed the healing broth even more. It finally arrived, 4 steaming bowls of Khao Soi with the cripsy noodles layered atop. I dove in. Fuck me. This was already the best bowl I had eaten in my life. The next 15 minutes passed in slurping heaven, perfect noodles, moist chicken, crunchy noodles, mustard greens, red onion and specks of life-giving coriander all came together in a majestic symphony of flavours.
4 bowls left behind, scraped to the bone for the soup. Absolutely stunning, nothing can beat this? Surely?
Ichiran and Ippudo are simultaneously average, but sometimes offer a glimpse of real ramen flavour if you visit late at night or have gone months without. This time around I hadn't had a ramen in almost 6 months, and was at the airport with 3 hours to kill. Burger King, McDonalds or Ippudo. I went for the latter.
Having tasted their Tonkotsu broths before and never been largely impressed, I opted for the special Shoyu Bowl and found a quiet place away from people at the back. The bowl came, I kinda knew straight away this was going to be average. First sip the soup, SALT BOMB! I know it's Shoyu but holy hell this was literally just soy sauce. The pork was chewy, the egg was alright, the noodles were standard and the menma ok.
A disappointing bowl, but you know it as soon as you enter. Its the lesser of a few evils.