Skirting the pho debate in Ho Chi Minh City

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  A bowl of pho ga (chicken noodle soup) with fresh herbs at Pho Huong Bac Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is a food paradise, no question.

All kinds of restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall places to the most swanky, luxurious fine dining options, serve cuisines from all parts of the world, and one can never complain about lack of variety or tasty food.

However, debates rage constantly about the authenticity of dishes originally served in other places, whether it is Italian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese or even other places within the country.

Perhaps the most contentious and enduring of such debates in Vietnam takes place over a dish that has become an icon of the whole country yes, you know what I am talking about pho, the beef or chicken noodle soup that is the standard bearer of Vietnamese cuisine.

As someone who enjoys food from all parts of the world, including fusion cuisine, I am not energized by this debate, but I cannot deny the hankering I have, every once in a while, for a bowl of authentic pho ga or pho bo. And I have to confess that for a Hanoi native like me, the bowl of pho that hits all the rights spots has to be from my native place.

There is no dearth of pho restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. Many of them, including the famous Pho 24, serve the soup with a modern, multi-regional style. As I said earlier, I am all for fusion cuisine, but pho is an exception.

Pho is a very time consuming and sophisticated dish which requires a dozen or so different spices and herbs. And an eatery that gets the combination of cow bones, cinnamon, coriander seed, star arise, ginger and other ingredients just right, just like the one I grew up enjoying in Hanoi, is not easy to come by.

A few months after I moved south to HCMC, I resolved to find a place that serves my authentic pho. The claimants are many, specifically advertising Hanoi pho, but they did not pass muster in my book. Soon, I resigned myself to having to enjoy the soup whenever I went back to the capital city.

PHO HUONG BAC

86 Nguyen Du Street,
District 1, HCMC
Then it happened. Ironically, it was a Japanese friend who took me to Pho Huong Bac Restaurant in District 1 when we were looking for a quick meal before a concert.

Pho Huong Bac reminded me of enjoying a bowl of pho in Hanoi's famed Old Quarter or a restaurant in Lo Duc Street near my house.

It is a simple, small restaurant that can seat about 30 people. There is a terrace shaded by the big tamarind trees on Nguyen Du Street and a small dining room with a view of the Caravelle Hotel.

The restaurant has a family atmosphere, and even features a resident cat that walks around looking for scraps. The family members are attentive, and ask if you need more fresh herbs while the cooks are busy at the big pots outside.

As with many such establishments in the country, including Hanoi, the restaurant is also the residence for the owners and family members can rest in the mezzanine during the day. Everything inside the restaurant is old and very clean. With its old doors and black wooden tables and old fans hanging from the ceiling, Pho Huong Bac reminded me of the spartan places in Hanoi that did business during the era of state subsidies.

Another very good thing about this restaurant is that customers can order pho with no oil and fat. Next to the little dish with lemon, sliced chili and fresh herbs, there are jars of garlic steeped with vinegar to enhance the soup's flavour.

Pho Huong Bac offers pho bo (beef noodle soup), pho gamien ga (chicken vermicelli soup) for the same price: VND45,000. For me, pho bo is the better option. It packs more flavor, I feel. (chicken noodle soup) and

I can say this now. Pho Huong Bac serves the best bowl of pho bo that I have ever had in Ho Chi Minh City. The beef, the fresh herbs, the broth, the noodles, the texture, the combination of spices and sauces superb.

If you want to cool off after a bowl of hot pho, or even start off with a drink, the restaurant serves coconut juice, soybean milk, coffee, passion fruit juice, kumquat juice, lemonade, and iced tea for around VND15,000.

After this elating discovery, I started introducing the restaurant to my friends. Last week, after a week of taking a visiting Hanoian friend to many restaurants serving southern dishes, he started asking me for something light in the morning, something like pho.

And after trying a bow of pho bo at Pho Huong Bac, he said: "the pho here is very good and authentic, just like pho in Hanoi."

Enough said.

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