Pho is not just the most popular and famous Vietnamese dish, it is one that evokes the most passionate arguments among self-styled gourmets particular about how it should be cooked, served and taste.
For the debaters, the purpose of having pho is not merely to fill a stomach, but to take the enjoyment of food to deeper emotional levels.
Once a pho enthusiast finds a seller that suits his or her likes, it is almost impossible to convince that person to switch to other sellers.
To some extent, it seems that there are “cults” and “followers”, especially when it comes to long-time vendors in Vietnam.
Pho Minh (Minh’s pho), a little restaurant situated in a small alley in downtown HCMC, can be said to have developed a cult following over its 60-year-plus history.
Many people visit the restaurant every morning to have the noodle soup that has smaller servings than other restaurants, but the broth is so delicious that not a drop is left behind in the bowls.
Patrons love the fact that the meat and bones are stewed many times over ovens using wood, instead of gas. As a result, the beef in Minh’s pho has the fragrance it should have if it is cooked for just the right amount of time.
A younger sister of Tran Minh, the restaurant’s founder, said Minh’s pho does not use the usual spices like cinnamon and star anise, but ginger that is not grilled and dried onion.
According to the 90-year-old woman, Minh and his brothers and sisters left the northern province of Ha Tay, now part of Hanoi, for Saigon (now HCMC) in 1920. He first did different jobs to earn a living before following his uncle to sell pho.
When Minh opened his own restaurant in the 1950s, his pho became famous, attracting celebrities and politicians.
PHỞ MINH (MINH'S PHO)
63/6 Pasteur St., Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1
Open hours: 6 a.m. – 10 a.m.
With competition from many sellers, the restaurant is now no longer as crowded as it used to be, but it has a fair share of patrons who cannot quit their habit of having their favorite food in their favorite place – a small old house with old furniture in a small, quiet alley.
They also come here for the banh cam – deep-fried glutinous rice ball with sweetened mung bean paste as its filling – which is made by Minh’s sister and sold as a dessert.
It is said that at first a Chinese-Vietnamese man sold gio chao quay - deep-fried strips of Chinese cruller called yu char kway or youtiao in Chinese at the restaurant so customers could eat it with pho.
But, later the man quit selling the savory, and in response to customers’ demand, the sister made banh cam which, despite being unable to be eaten with pho, turned out to be a good choice of dessert, achieving fame in its own right at the venerable eatery over the past 40 years.
The pair of pho and banh cam became so loved that some other sellers have begun offering it, like Pho Tau Bay and Pho Hoa – Pasteur.
However, due to failing health, the sister has recently stopped making the cake.
While its popularity means that many variations of pho have developed and that this process will continue, it is even more heartening that there are many old pho restaurants like Pho Minh with their own original style that are still with us, staying true to their own tradition.
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