Enraptured in idle conversation with the receptionist whilst awaiting a SIM card delivery, I turned the subject towards Pho. "Any places in Vung Tau that you would highly recommend?". She didn't hesitate for a second: " Minh Tam, it's the best! Local taste". Moments before leaving my room I had googled "Best Pho in Vung Tau" on a Vietnamese food site (not tripadvi-sore), and SNAP, Minh Tam had the highest ratings.
I walked into the small roadside shop, pointed at the bowl on the menu that I wanted, took my seat and smelled the divine broth wafting over while flies buzzed around in confusing patterns racing invisible prizes. First sip and I was a convert. Second sip, a religious nut. This was the bowl you hope to find everytime you enter a new shopfront or store. This exact bowl. Broth so clear, yet deep and unctuous in it's slimline perfection, noodles soft but textured, beef a little on the chewy side but lets not be negative. This is one of those bowls that would be served to you on your deathbed and you wouldn't even throw a glancing look towards impending death, you would shakily pour in as much broth as you could handle through your dentured mouth.
Only a handful of places on earth could come close to this. This is almost perfection.
Obviously the first thing i'm going to do when I land back in Vietnam (apart from having a power nap) is to seek out a bowl of Pho. I trustingly read some blogs, narrowed it down to this one to be the first victim of my serious withdrawals (they couldn't win), and hammered down highways on the back of a motorbike taxi dispensing life and death decisions in miliseconds and milimeters to spare. We arrived, all limbs intact, and I walked in to find the restaurant oddly empty.
The proprieter, a legend in these parts, with his massive grin and obvious limp came roving over to my table eager to see what this white boy wanted. I ordered the brisket pho, a Larue beer and sat back watching the torrent of traffic weaving it's way by. In distinct memory of some of the best bowls I have ever had, not that nostalgia can be a cheeky tart, but knowing full well what an epic bowl tastes like this was a crushing punch in the testicles. Now, on any given day in Oslo I would be donating blood to have a broth that came close to this (especially after Hai Cafe shut down), but the feverous lack of any depth of flavour was illuminated like a thin dress caught in headlights. The brisket was tougher than concrete, the fat lines were 70% of the "meat" and inedible in their nausea. The noodles were standard, so no inflammatory remarks can be aimed at them.
I had to start adding a host of unnecessaries: Tons of chili paste, pepper, even more herbs than was called for, vinegar, literally threw the kitchen sink at the bowl to make it sing in some particular way, even if that were a castrated Italian choirboy singing "Ave Maria" burdened by the knowledge that though his notes are clear, his lower half is missing some vital bits and pieces.
With sorrow making lines across my face I was forced to leave half the bowl, pay, try to fake a smile, and walk hastily in any which direction just to get away from the aftermath of a semi-disastrous meal.
Scarily enough, I awoke this morning with sleep heavy on my eyelids, considered my options, and found myself needing another bowl of Pho. The night before I had met a delightful Vietnamese girl at a bar who's boyfriend was a rich American-Vietnamese cocky idiot, so while he bragged to a fellow American about his business acumen, I stole tips off her for places to eat in Danang. This was the first place she recommended.
The interior left little to the imagination, the kind of place you'd imagine getting sick if you touched anything that wasn't over boiling point. I crossed myself out of habit rather than belief. A steaming bowl of broth, noodles, greens, onions and beef pieces arrived at my table and I dove in headfirst. Broth was rather complex, a tiny bit thin in flavour but you got hints of where this was going. Possibly if it was left reducing another couple of hours it would be spot on. The noodles were the usual fare, the beef a little on the scary side so I left most of it.
All things considered it was a decent bowl of Pho, and definitely the second best I had in Danang after the Container place that shook my stereotypes to their foundations.
I'm not kidding. It's called Pho Container aaaaaaand: It's in a replica ship container. All sounds a little bit too gimmicky for me, but the reviews were solid and being a 2 minute ride from the apartment I had to give it a go. Especially after yesterdays crushing disappointment, I needed to redeem Pho for Vietnam!
I decided to splash out and order the "Aussie Beef" bowl which was 1 dollar more expensive than the others, but turned out to be the size of a bathtub. Fear shot through my pores at the size of this behemoth landing at the table carried by strong arms. First impressions, this looked pukka. I stirred the broth a little and took my first sip, unadulterated. Bingo! It had that clear, rich, slightly sweet broth that I had come to know and love with hints of star anise and other spices coming through gently. I tore apart the basil, coriander, red chillis, bean sprouts and loaded my bowl ready for attack.
3/5th's of a way down I had to throw in the towel. This was fantastic food, I just couldn't manage any more. I made my excuses, took some photos and left with a stomach equal parts content and at breaking point.
The quest to find a decent bowl of ramen in every country on earth.