Pho: a Vietnamese battle of the broths

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 10:49am

pho (pronounced to rhyme with "duh") is one of Asia's best-loved comfort foods. It is believed to have originated from northern Vietnam's Nam Dinh province, the addition of beef to the broth and rice noodle dish influenced by the French, and the name possibly coming from the
feu (fire) of

Restaurants in Hanoi like to keep to the traditional, more salty combination of broth, meat and noodles. But when the recipe travelled south, along with the cross-country exodus that took place during the Indochina war, southern pretenders to the pho throne added a flourish of vegetables, herbs and spices, and sugar.

Outside its native country, pho is seen as Vietnam's national dish.

As the cliché goes, there are probably as many recipes as chefs, and every pho fan has the perfect taste in mind as they tuck into a bowl, mentally comparing and contrasting the tenderness of the beef, the beefiness of the broth, and the chewiness of the noodles to others they have eaten.

However, many foodies claim the success of the dish boils down to the soup, made with beef bones, marrow and meat to anchor its flavour, onions pre-charred to bring out their sweetness, spices such as ginger, star anise, cloves and cinnamon providing depth, sugar, and, of course, the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce,
nuoc cham.

One of Hong Kong's most popular Vietnamese restaurant chains is Nha Trang. It's rare to see Central's Wellington Street branch without a line of customers gazing through the window at the light-filled space, dominated by the high communal tables in the middle, smaller tables around the walls, and a harried army of servers.

On a recent visit for an early Sunday brunch, we ordered a bowl of pho tai (HK$48), which arrived at the table steaming and fragrant as usual, filled with rice noodles, slithers of onions, bean sprouts, fresh basil, spring onion, coriander, thin slices of beef cooked medium-rare, and broth. (Alternatives include pho chin with beef shank, pho nam with brisket, pho ga with chicken, as well as two regional variations:
bun bo Hue with beef, pork shank and spicy broth; and
bun rieu with minced pork, crab, dried shrimp, tomato and garlic.)

A squeeze of lime juice and some chilli were added, and we dug in. Was it us, or did the broth seem lighter and a smidgen sweeter than usual? Intrigued we asked a waiter, who said that at the beginning of the day the broth could taste lighter, as more ingredients were added throughout the day to replenish the stock, leaving the strongest flavour for the evenings. This was later refuted by the manager, who said the taste really should not change, as the roasted beef bones, chicken bones, charred onion and ginger, and spices are cooked for 10 to 12 hours in two big pots, from which a little is taken out at a time to serve.

It was still a beautiful, comfort-food experience. We usually wash it down with lime and mint soda or fresh coconut, but this time we chose salty preserved lemon and preserved plum drinks, possibly adding to the contrasting sweetness of the broth. The crispy soft-shell crab rice-paper salad rolls (HK$52), dipped in tangy sauce, are sublime every time.

Just a few steps down Wellington Street is ChomChom, a pho bar and private kitchen. If possible, ask for a seat around the open kitchen rather than against the wall because it gives you the opportunity to watch the action and chat to owner and chef Peter Cuong Franklin. He was born in Dalat, Vietnam, where his mother had a noodle shop, and he previously worked at Caprice.

The paper strip of a lunch set menu (dinner is a five-course chef's tasting menu), which doubles as your bill later, gives you a choice of just a few starters, mains and drinks (starter and main HK$82, or with a drink, HK$91). Most diners ticked the signature ChomChom pho beef noodle soup as their main, but there was also a bun noodle salad and
banh mi (baguette sandwich) on the list. Starters include shrimp rice-paper rolls, which were a little light on the shrimp, and the more successful crispy spring rolls with pork, mushrooms, vermicelli and veggies, which tasted authentic and crunchy. Both were served with a prawn cracker and dipping sauce.

The pho arrives with hand-cut, and rather chunky, rare beef sirloin, beef brisket, rice noodles, broth, green onion and bean sprouts with a garnish of chilli and half a hard-boiled quail's egg. The incorporated fish sauce is made by hand on Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam. Lime and chilli are at hand, and glasses filled with basil and other fresh herbs are on the table to add to the taste.

Franklin advised us to push the beef under the surface of the broth immediately, to start the cooking process.

On our first visit some months ago, ChomChom's broth had not instantly wowed us, perhaps because we had become so enamoured of Nha Trang's version. Franklin told us that one of the difficulties of cooking the dish is that everyone comes to the table with personal expectations, whether from another restaurant or their mother's home cooking.

This time the broth hit the spot; the hot, more-salty-than-sweet soup a soothing balance to the tender sirloin and brisket and crunchy bean sprouts. Sharing the dish was the right way to go (we also ordered the salad with lemon grass beef) as it is a generous serving. Also, the daily special of cinnamon or mint and basil house-made ice cream (HK$27) is a must.
The verdict: ChomChom was the winner with a delicious pho and a more personal ambience that enabled us to discuss the origins of the dish with Franklin. But we'll never tire of popping in for a bowl of pho at Nha Trang.

Nha Trang

88-90 Wellington Street, Central Tel: 2581 9992,

Open 12pm-11pm daily (four other locations)

ChomChom Pho Bar

2/F, 12 Wellington Street, Central Tel: 2868 3302, Open for lunch Mon-Sat 11am-2pm, evening five-course chef's tasting menu available on request