Pho Real: Locals Only Vietnam

Like many of my food experiences in Vietnam, I had certain expectations --  based on the foundations of both flavor and quality -- this included my previous knowledge of Vietnam's most popular dish, pho noodle soup. While we were obligated (poor us) to try a fair amount of breakfast bowls brimmed with green onions, bean sprouts and the iconic pho broth, I didn't expect it to be nearly as challenging to find stalls and vendors that maintained a high level of merit throughout the country. As it turns out, many of the dishes we consumed labeled pho, were not pho, but caloric liquid portions of energy, a means of continuing through the morning or afternoon's work or activities. The real deal requires some searching, some patience, some waiting in line, and often recommendations from locals or other pho-natics.

Here's the pho-down (how many cheesy jokes is one mortal allowed??), which doesn't include Saigon or the south of Vietnam because I wasn't there long enough to paint an accurate picture, however their pho tends to lean more towards the central's version and preparation.

Pho Hanoi

In the North it's different, perhaps you could even label them purists. All along the slim and lengthy Vietnamese territory you'll find roadside makeshift restaurants that specialize in "pho Hanoi." To many, it's considered sacrilegious to "mess" too much with a good thing. The broth - based on a mixture of anise, cinnamon, clove, cassia bark and garlic - is the star of the show, the beef slices the best actor in a leading role and the bare minimum of fixins' the best actress in a supporting role.

You'll likely encounter the following alongside your eating space:

- a small plate of greens; basil, mint and/or cilantro
- bean sprouts
- a jar of garlic slices floating in white vinegar
- sliced chili peppers
- quartered limes

Ask for deep fried bread sticks quay, or banh gio chao quay (like Vietnamese churros) for pho dipping.

Hanoi Winner. 

Pho Gia Truyen (aka Pho 49 Bat Dan) 
49 Bat Dan 
Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi First Runner-up. 

Pho Thin
13 Lo Duc
Hanoi, Vietnam
[Google Maps]

In the particular case of Pho Gia Truyen, there were three menu options, all based on a beef stock:

-Tai Nam, flank and eye round steak. 50,000 VND/ $2.50
-Tai, thinly sliced raw eye round steak that cooks itself once added to the stock.  45,000 VND/ $2.25
-Chin, well done brisket. 40,000 VND/ $2.00

Steamy cauldrons of pho await serving, as family members move swiftly around the station, blanching rice noodles, cutting beef, serving and cleaning up after guests. 

The best pho in Hanoi? Pho Gia Truyen, 49 Bat Dan won us over. 

Pho in Central Vietnam

In the central coastal region of Vietnam your pho will likely be served alongside or garnished with:
- toasted peanuts
- blended chili sauce (essentially Sriracha in a ketchup bottle)
- plum sauce (hoisin sauce)
- chili chutney (much spicier)
- dried chili flakes
- vinegar (perhaps with macerated purple garlic and/or chili slices)
- fish sauce
- soy sauce
- bean sprouts (sometimes blanched)
- basil, cilantro, rice paddy and mint leaves
- pickled wide green papaya slices
- cut limes
- sliced or whole mini chili peppers

My recommendation is to add all of the above, although if you're sensitive to spice, watch the chili, it's potent even by Vietnamese standards.

Hoi An Winner.

Pho 323 Cua Dai
Hoi An, Vietnam
[Google Maps]

Central Vietnamese Pho 

Pho noodle soup and the fixins' 30,000 VND/ $1.50

A dirty floor is a good thing. High turnover, higher quality stock and fresher greens and beef.  

Hoi An First Runner-up.

Pho 74
Hoi An, Vietnam
[Google map]

25,000 VND / $1.25 a bowl at Pho 74 Hoi An, Vietnam

Important disclosure: The 1st and 15th of the lunar month, the majority of the vendors serve vegetarian versions of their typical service or don't show up to work at all (primarily practice of Mahayana Buddhists). Plan your food tour accordingly.

Also, pho is most traditionally consumed as a breakfast food, although some prefer it as an anytime snack. This however entails that many of the best and freshest pho can be found at stalls serving between 7am-10am, perhaps only till 9am when they run out of a particular product. Keep in mind and be prepared to set the alarm - the early bird gets the worm.


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