Is pho the new ramen? We talk to three maverick Hong Kong makers of the Vietnamese beef noodle soup

The classic Vietnamese soup is all about the broth and the herbs. Three restaurateurs tell us their pho stories and share their tips for making the finest soup

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 1:16am

Is pho the new ramen?

Not long ago, Hong Kong was obsessed with Japan’s popular soup noodles. There were online debates about which shop had the best pork bone soup, the best al dente noodles, and the fattiest char siu, and people would queue up for an hour or longer so they could be sure of getting some of the limited item bowls.

Now a few food entrepreneurs are turning their focus towards Vietnam. This brotherhood of broth isn’t interested in serving huge menus that encompass spring rolls, banh mi and butter-fried chicken wings. Their obsession is entirely concerned with one of the most popular of Vietnamese dishes, pho bo, or noodles swimming in a long-simmered beef broth.

Restaurant review: Brass Spoon in Central – tasty Vietnamese dishes, great for a quick lunch

Approaching their stock with artisanal flair, these pho fighters are rocking diners one beefy bowl at a time. With a commitment to premium ingredients, they’re also betting customers will pay a little more for their gourmet pho.

Brass Spoon – owner/chef Sebastien Vong

What’s your background?

“I am a quarter Vietnamese. My mother’s mum was from Saigon, but I was born in Paris. Our pho has a French touch. I would say it is more refined. The Vietnamese version is more rustic. Also, we don’t put MSG in the soup; we let the natural flavour come out.”

What makes your soup special?

“I learned to make pho at university. There was a shop run by an older Vietnamese lady and I went there about three times a week. She came to Paris after the war. She wasn’t a cook but her mother gave her the recipe so she could make a living. When the lady retired, I told her I want to learn it and my sincerity touched her.”

Anything else?

“The soup is beef bones and a lot of herbs, onions and spices. We also put in a lot of brisket. Bones on their own don’t have much flavour. Pho is about balance, We try to make it very clean and clear with a slight hint of the herbs. When we serve it, we also offer a lot of fresh herbs.

“We cook it for 12 hours, with another four hours of prep work before. It takes a lot of hard work and passion. And pho is not cheap to make. People are used to the HK$40 MSG-based soup, so it’s tough to change minds. Beef bones are way more expensive than pork bones. And we use an obscene amount of fresh US beef bones.”

Tell us a story about pho

“In America and France, pho is cheap because they eat so much beef and they don’t use the bones. That’s how pho came to be. The colonial French threw out the bones so the Vietnamese thought maybe they could do something with them. [Vietnamese] people didn’t eat much beef because the cows were used for farming.

Restaurant review: Brass Spoon in Central – tasty Vietnamese dishes, great for a quick lunch

“I would say Vietnamese cuisine is one of the first fusion foods. Pho as a national dish is only about 100 years old.”

Le Pho (by Naked) – owner/chef Justin Chan, co-owner Barbara Chan

What’s your background?

JC: “I am part Vietnamese. The recipe was my grandma’s and she was Laotian. My grandfather is Chinese but had business in Vietnam and that’s where they met. The family left during the war and came to Hong Kong, where I was born. Every weekend my grandmother would make a Vietnamese feast, so it’s comfort food for me.”

What makes your soup special?

JC: “Our pho is from the south. The flavour is a lot stronger. I like using short ribs [in the broth]. People say you’re crazy because short ribs are so expensive, but the marbling is so balanced and the flavour is stronger. I love that. Also, we use Thai glass noodles [instead of rice noodles] which don’t get soggy. I also grill the ginger and onion [for the broth] until they’re almost burnt to bring out more caramelisation. That is the true Vietnamese style.”

Anything else?

JC: “We also specialise in using culantro, which is a Vietnamese herb; my business partner grows it for me organically in Hong Kong.”

BC: “I was his supplier and we used to order the products overseas, but Justin set very high standards and couldn’t find exactly what he wanted, so I decided to try growing Vietnamese herbs for him. Then we just became partners in the restaurant.”

How do you make the broth?

JC: “We chargrill the onions and ginger first to get a smoky flavour. Then we put a lot of seasonings, in particular green cardamon. It’s expensive but it adds a little umami. Then, fennel seeds, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and coriander seeds. Sometimes we’ll roast some of the seeds. For the beef, we use Black Angus short ribs, brisket, tripe, oxtail, tendon and shank, so it’s packed with beef flavour. It’s cooked, taken off the heat and recooked the next day. It’s technically a two-day process. I don’t mind giving people the recipe. If they think they can do it at home, go ahead. But it’s so much work.”

How did you get your start in the restaurant business?

JC: “I originally hosted pop-up events at the weekends and eventually my friends suggested I open a restaurant. But I started cooking when I was in the US. I trained as a Japanese chef – that’s why I opened Naked Gurume Gyarari [originally in SoHo, it moved to Tsim Sha Tsui and is know known as Naked]. Before I started cooking, I was a professional dietitian and medical technician. So I know the health value of everything I cook.”

Pho Bar – co-owner, Norm Stradmoor

What’s your background?

“I am a quarter British and was a banker but I quit because I didn’t like it. My brother and I operate a Japanese coffee brand. Opening a pho shop was fortuitous. My friend had a business in Central that didn’t work out but the lease wasn’t up. We thought we had a good pho recipe, so we took over the space. We opened in Central on January 15, 2016 and the new Causeway Bay space opened on January 15, 2017.”

What makes your soup special?

“It’s the amount of beef we put in – more than 13kg of beef parts for about 50 bowls of soup. By regular restaurant calculations I should be charging HK$100 but because we are in less expensive locations I can afford to charge less.”

Restaurant review: Miss Saigon in Kennedy Town – go for the pho

How do you make it?

“I am not a professional cook so we had a chef helping us initially, but we have changed the recipe somewhat. The core ingredients are still there but we’ve added other things. We actually cook the broth for 18 hours. In terms of recipe, everyone uses the same base but adjusts it differently or uses different parts of the cow. We use USDA and Angus beef with a lot of herbs. I try to go for a soup with a lot of layers for a richer taste and deeper colour, since it is the soul of the dish.”

Tell us a story about yourself

“I actually lived in Japan for 10 years so it would have made more sense for me to do ramen, but the market is saturated. It’s everywhere in Hong Kong, whereas pho is picking up around the world but people here are still stuck with the same pho that’s been around 20 years.

“I don’t know why, but all these pho places suddenly started appearing. I mean, I know Justin of Le Pho Naked as a friend and I didn’t know he was opening a pho place too.”

Brass Spoon

10 Pottinger Street, Central, tel: 2804 1811

1 Moon St, Wan Chai, tel: 2877 0898

Le Pho by Naked

J House, 8 Ormsby Street, Tai Hang, tel: 2803 1938

Pho Bar

24 Li Yuen Street West, Central, tel: 2109 2028

21 Yiu Wa Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2109 2826