Look. I've had some bloody good bowls of ramen over the years in Saigon. Two of those shops being 100 meters from Mutahiro. On the ferry over from Vung Tau I decided to spend the 2 hours productively flicking through blogs and reviews of Pho, Ramen and Vietnamese street food since i'd be spending a couple more days in the city and needed some bliss. Mutahiro suddenly popped up at the top of quite a few different pages, despite me never having heard of it on previous visits. Intrigued I read on. After ploughing through countless 5/5 reviews, or blogs hammering on about "ramen perfection" I made up my mind to throw my bag into my hotel room and head straight there.
2 hours later I was walking through the tiny alleyways of "Little Japan" in Saigon, a seedy, lively part of town and home to all the best Ramen shops. Danbo was behind me, Tomidaya straight ahead, and Mutahiro appeared at the end of the street down an inconspicuously narrow alley. This wouldn't be a place you happened upon accidentally, you would have to track it down. Eagerness overshadowed by nerves I entered to the rattling shouts of "Irasshaimase!!". Both corners were taken (DAMN) so I had to sit in the middle next to two salarymen grunting into their beers.
The special shoyu was ordered with egg (of course), and a cold glass of water poured to dampen the insane pollution this city sweats out daily.
Sip Sip................... OH MY FREAKING GOD!... Memories came flooding back from the first time's I sipped the holiest of broth's in Tokyo amongst gasps for air, screams of exhortation and the ravaging need to spoon gallons more into your mouth in case you suddenly had a heartattack and wanted this to be your final mouth-memory. This was rich, deep, fatty (but not greasy) heaven. The noodles were actually buckwheat (Soba), so different to regular Ramen noodles, but tasted fantastic despite their slightly softer texture. There was a slice each of pork and chicken, something I had not encountered before. The chicken was some of the moistest, flavoursome chicken I'd ever eaten in a bowl. This must be sous vide? Not to be outdone, the pork shone through with it's delectable thicker cut tenderness and mountains of flavour. I slurped myself into a frenzy without paying any heed to the other people around me in this 12 seat shop. Dizzy with bliss I paid my bill, bowed and thanked all the chefs, and went on my merry way pinching myself to make sure this wasn't a dream.
Pho Phu Vuong
The end of the line.
Perfection. Quynh and Hung are worthy competitors but if it came down to a day left on earth, and one last bowl of Phô it would have to be this one. The brisket one at Quynh is absolutely phenomenal, but the broth here just ticks it slightly over... i'm talking SLIGHTLY.
Both are worthy of time and investment and lots of sips and sighs, but if you come to HCMC for one day only, then get a Grab taxi and hurry down here.
(In) famous for the fact that then President Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls, this shop opened in 1999 and proudly declares that it serves "Presidential Broth". Ehem. First of all, what in all honesty would Bill Clinton know about Phô? Sure, it is a relatively tasty bowl of noodle soup, but there are far better in Saigon.
I hadn't entered Phô 2000 since my first visit to Vietnam almost 10 years go. Instinctively on further trips to the city I avoided it with the same fear I shed on places like KFC. For some reason it always looked like a fast-food joint, even tho I remember enjoying it the first time around. Relatively weather-beaten and sea-worn I decided if I was to compile a list that would be taken seriously I would have to try it again.
Honestly, I almost looked over my shoulder walking in. For no reason at all other than it was right next to one of the worst places in Saigon: Ben Thanh Market. A diseased watering hole for all the abject tourist wank you could ever imagine: The death-penalty inducing banana shirts, elephant pants to enrage the most ardent pacifist, dumb t-shirts emblazoned with Phòk That and the squeal of a tourist who thinks they got a good deal after bargaining for 30 minutes to get a 10 cent discount. Oh well.
Curtly: The soup was decent, especially after adding the condiments. The noodles were good and had a slight firmness to them still. The outstanding part here was the beef. Far more tender and "good cut" than most places you eat at on the street. Your 80.000 Dong won't buy you the best Phô in town, but it will get you a respectably decent meal in return.
7/10 (1 point extra for the beef)
Pho Phuong 25 - ho chi minh
My pho and noodle adventures take me to some strange neighbourhoods in random cities. Today was no exception. After spending the evening before poring over articles, newspaper scans and "insider info" the decision was made to head to District 1 and check this place out.
My grab driver looked at me with a bewildered stare when he read the address out to clarify I knew where I was going. He then took to the wheel and expertly wove his way between scooters like a skilled craftsman. Dropping me off a few meters away I took the opportunity to walk over to the river for a brief respite from the incessant movement of vehicular kind. I paused and gazed out over the brown, lilting water, but the moment was partially ruined by the sound of honking behind me and the plethora of plastic floating it's way to some ocean to poison the earths heart.
An english menu was placed in front of me. I had read various grumbles from experts galore about the infamy of being charged 100k for a bowl of soup at this place. Fear's were allayed when the menu clearly stated the prices, and the special was 100k, but you can also do what I did and order the medium bowl with rare beef and meatballs and eat to your stomachs content for 60k.
Price aside, what really matters is the food. On this occasion I have to admit this was one of the weaker bowls I have had in Saigon. First off the broth was examined unadulterated, it was off-puttingly sweet. I then tried the noodles and beef, good....ok.....fine. The beef balls had a strange overpowering garlic taste to them which didn't sit right. I applied herbs, lime juice, chilis and sauce and still couldn't rescue it. For once I decided to not be polite for the sake of it, and I paid and left with 3/4 of the bowl remaining. With so few days in Saigon, I don't have the luxury of wasting meals on mediocre food.
Ramen Danbo - ho chi minh
A year ago I took some friends here and watched in reverence as they spooned silky broth to their lips and their facial expressions changed to utter glee. This time another friend was visiting and after spending some time at Kim Hideaway Bar we plodded off to get ramen.
I ordered the regular Tonkotsu with egg. As with memories, you sometimes doubt that it really was THAT good, and the slight shudder of fear begins to creep in after talking so highly of it. Fears were brushed aside after 1 tender dip into the divine porcine remnants. Everything about this bowl is perfection. Not one single goddamn complaint or excuse. Near perfection.
With 24 ingredients going into the secret broth, this mega-chain is spreading it's gospel of Pho to all corners of Vietnam. Despite multiple visits to the country, this was my first foray into the establishment.
Reasonably priced, rather decent broth for being a conglomerate, tender beef, decent noodles and the usual condiments and accompaniments.
If you're stuck for lunch and happen to walk past one of these, there are far worse places to appease your famishment than here.
Pho Minh Tam
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.
Pho Viet Beo
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.
Pho Quynh - ho chi minh
You know when you recommend a place, and its bloody marvellous, and then friends go there a couple months later and go "Huh? WTF is so great about that?"... and invariably you find out the chef quit or the place is under new management, or that you just have really bad taste.
I discovered this place 2 years ago via an old lady who ran my Airbnb who said "Ignore the tourists, the locals are all on the 2nd and 3rd floor because this is the best in Saigon". And bloody hell she was right. I went multiple times, took friends, recommended it to friends, had generally only positive feedback and was so looking forward to trying it again except, it was not great when I went last week. (my previous review). However, sometimes you have to give it another go, and tonight I did... and by far this was the greatest bowl of Pho I have ever eaten in my life.
The broth was divine, the noodles, the brisket, the accompaniments, the sauces, and thinly sliced onions, I cannot fault a single thing on this dish, and therefore stick strongly to the fact that Pho Quynh is going to be almost impossible to beat ever.
Pho 1954 - ho chi minh
Not to be confused with Pho 54, this place near Ben Thanh Market was recommended by many local websites. Funnily enough, my grab driver uttered something in Vietnamese when I jumped off there and I will never know if he was saying "STAY AWAY" or "GOOD CHOICE". Regardless of his misunderstood yelpings, I found a table and decided to go for the brisket + raw beef Pho since they had already run out of the "special".
First thing I do when a bowl of Pho arrives at the table is not to reach for the condiments, or herbs, or sauces, or anything, but just dip my spoon in and taste the broth. After-all herbs are pretty much the same all over, beef is beef (in varying qualities), hot sauces are usually bog-standard, chillis are incalculably similar in such establishments, and the noodles are usually either the thin ones or the thick ones, but it's rice noodles so there is very little to distinguish apart from the cooking. The secret of a good Pho is 90% in the broth. Some broths hit you with flavour and then decimate your palate after 6 sips, some are so thin and tasteless that the longer you try to find anything worth writing home about, the less you find.... and then there are the bowls that at first you think "Hmm, not amazing but ok"... and the longer you dive down, adding some lime juice and chillis, or herbs after the first few sips, then you find yourself enjoying what tasted bland before (I don't know whether this is to the credit of the chef, or customer for making a so-so bowl taste good with his/her own additions). Quynh and Hung manage that balance without having to add anything to the bowl, but 1954 was definitely the third best I have tasted after a vast foray into the top rated (and some lesser rated) places in Ho Chi Minh. I admit, I did have to add quite a lot of chillis + chilli sauce which I normally don't do, but then suddenly it tasted really good.
I would definitely go back and try the special one day.
Daichi Ramen - ho chi minh
Authenticity of local food always throws up a lot of arguments.
- Is it palatable for the western taste.
- Should they alter their food to make it more accessible?
In Ho Chi Minh, there is a small enclave predominantly made for the huge Japanese ex-pat and business community that frequent the area. For this reason, the food they make here is 100% in keeping with what Japanese people like, and they are not watering it down to appeal to a few curious tourists. Having spent a lot of time in Japan, and eaten a lot of bowls of ramen this can be both good news and bad (for me). Good in the sense that I like a lot of what the Japanese find palatable, but also, they definitely have a tendency to like things "Rich", "Fatty", "Oily", "Heavy-taste", which can translate as being "I think i'm going to be sick after half a bowl". This is one of those establishments.
Before I ordered, the waitress gave me a card in English saying "This soup is for Japan taste, so maybe foreign think it too salt or rich". Well, I took my chance, and the problems were not the saltiness of the broth (even tho it was intensely salty, well, I did order the Shio-Tonkotsu knowingly), but the fact that it had very little other characteristics other than salt. It lacked the depth, the umami, of other great Ramens in the same area (Tomidaya + Danbo are both exceptional). The egg was a shade under so it still had "snotty-white parts" but tasted good, the noodles were bog standard, the pork was chewier than I like but fairly decent, and the wood-ear mushrooms were much more "toothsome" than i've experienced anywhere before. All in all it was an experience, and a place I am glad I tried, but won't be going back to because regardless of whether the textures or tastes were not to "our" palate, there also is the fact about good or bad TASTING food. This was not great.
Pho Hoa Pasteur - ho chi minh
Doing this labour of love entails trying a lot of different places, and only finding a few real gems. That is pretty much the journey of life too. Having had so many amazing bowls of ramen or soup at "chain restaurants" in Japan and Asia, I am not necessarily put off by the term. However, mom + pop stores specialising in one certain style, almost always beat out the competition.
This is true in the case for Hoa (a chain). I was originally going to try Minh, but they close at 11 am and I flew in last night and needed my ugly sleep. I caught a Grab Moto up to Pasteur, almost smacked straight into a brand new BMW, then had a man literally 1 cm from running into me on the back of the bike until I shouted and he looked up in the last split second, got to the place, noticed it was packed with locals, found a table and ordered.
The noodles were over-cooked. The broth was that insipid sweet clear broth that can sometimes pack such a punch, but didn't at all... it didn't even taste that great when I threw in the bean sprouts, basil, culantro, chilli's and a dose of hot sauce. This was an exercise in futility. Nothing could save it.
I politely ate about half, then threw in the towel and headed back to my room. Screw the reviews.
The three of us jumped in an Uber and snaked our way through the insanity that is the streets of Ho chi Minh. I had read that this place was supposedly serving up the quintessential authentic Japanese shoyu Ramen in town. We spent the better part of 20 minutes walking in circles inside the small Japanese enclave, but finally we managed to find it before they closed for an afternoon break. The excitement was palpable. Our first real ramen experience in Vietnam. Lets see how they stand up against other countries in the region.
First impressions were great. 3 jolly Japanese chefs all small-talking in the kitchen whilst a salaryman slurped to his hearts content and offered the warmest praise whilst leaving. The bowls arrived. First sip: HEAVEN! This was up there with some of the best Shoyu Ramen I have ever tasted. The broth was deep, fatty, full of umami. The egg, perfectly cooked, the noodles al-dente, the pork melt-in-your-mouth. The Sapporo beer did nothing to diminish the charming meal. With full stomachs we gladly paid the 4 Euros and headed out into Saigon's belly with fresh optimism and belief that life is perhaps a gift, and not a chore.
Pho Le - ho chi minh
Being able to almost correctly judge food based on it's appearance is a tricky business. Most of the time you get surprised, but quite often you also are bang on. After clambering on the back of a Grab Taxi Scooter and hurtling at 60mph through the insane Ho Chi Minh traffic I arrived at Phô Le. A local favourite. I was excited to see what all the fuss was about since the reviews online were generally flattering and trustworthy.
I'm beginning to see a pattern developing when locals recommend something in Vietnam. They prefer the "weaker, thinner broth" whereas I prefer the bolder, deeper flavours of Phô Quynh. The Phô ended up squarely in the middle of the pack, the broth was almost tasteless, the noodles on point, the meat a slight improvement on a couple of other spots, and the price was agreeable. However, like in Japan where most locals enjoy really really heavy/fatty Tonkotsu, the Vietnamese seem to prefer the lighter things in life, and that just ain't my bag baby.
The quest to find a decent bowl of ramen in every country on earth.