Pho Chi Minh
I seem to have written quite a lot about Vietnamese pho on this blog – at least that’s the way it seems. I live close to Pho For You and rather further away from the mighty Pham Thi Chinh, for which you have to go all the way to Wangsimni (but rest assured it’s well worth the trip).
This spicy-sour Vietnamese soup now comes to the very centre of the city, courtesy of one of the brains behind the excellent Southside Parlor, Robbie Nguyen, and Dan Cho, a partner in the crazy popular Paulie’s Brick Oven Pizzeria in Gwanghwamun. The snappily titled Pho Chi Minh is on the fifth floor of the same Gwanghwamun complex that hosts Paulie’s and Power Plant, the food court comprising the unholy trio of Coreanos, Gilbert Burger and Manimal Provisions.
Robbie has spent time in the kitchens working on his pho recipes, and it shows, because Pho Chi Minh is a winner.
There are four varieties of soup on the menu at the moment, of which I’ve tried two. The Phở tái is served with thin slivers of rare beef and a generous helping of rice noodles. (Aren’t you impressed by those fancy Vietnamese accents? My cut and paste skills are truly unsurpassed.)
The broth is light and clean-tasting; by all means add some Sriracha and hoi sin sauce if you like, but not until you’ve tasted the soup on its own, because you may find it doesn’t need it. True pho snobs may find adding any sauces directly to the soup sacrilegious, but in my defence, this was how I was shown how to eat it when I first encountered pho in Hanoi, so I still do this when I think no-one is looking. The noodles are good; not quite as transcendent as the noodles at Emoi near Jonggak, which really are a thing of wonder, but more than adequate.
I’d have to taste them side-by-side to form a really sure opinion, but I feel that the broth in Pham Thi Chinh is a bit more aromatic. That said, this soup is made the right way, simmered for hours with no added MSG or BS. A very nice bowl of pho, the addition of a fresh herb plate really lifted this and reminded me of what I’d tasted in Vietnam; fresh limes, coriander, Thai basil and, crucially, fresh mint, and plenty of it. The owners explained that even though these herbs are expensive, and vary in availability from day to day, they prefer to include them in the dish even if it means selling the soup at a slightly higher price point.
The second pho I had was the standout for me, Phở Sate’. This is a soup with beef and meatballs which is pimped out with a goodly-sized glob of sate sauce, which is an oily chilli paste not unlike an Indonesian sambal. It was terrific. When everything’s mixed together, the end result is a spicy, filling wonder. 9,900won, with a larger size for 2000 extra.
The meatballs were not as chewy as some that I’ve had elsewhere – in taste and texture they were almost more like sliced sausage – which I regarded as a plus, even though I’ve been told that chewiness is par for the course for Vietnamese meatballs in American pho places. By the end, I was sweating like Marlon Brando near the end of Apocalypse Now. It was great.
Aside from the pho, there are a few spring-roll type sides and some Chinese fried rices and noodles. The Chả giò are one of my favourite things, little deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with pork that are mesmerisingly addictive. Pho Chi Minh’s cha gio are good, more-ish and very satisfying, served with a little pickle and some lettuce wraps. At 5,500 won for a portion of 4, I felt they represented less good value for money than the soup, though perhaps comparing the portion size with the huge plate of cha gio you get in Wangsimni is an unfair benchmark – but flavour-wise, they’d be top of the list on my next visit.
Deep-fried shrimp purses were also very addictive, with a strong prawn flavour coming through, though personally I didn’t care for the sweet mayo dip that they were served with.
These are more of a Chinese offering, as was the beef ho fun that we ordered on my second visit. This was nice, beef stir fried with flat noodles – the sort of thing I’d devour in front of the TV, but nothing out of the ordinary for me.
My abiding memory of Vietnam is bowls of pho in the morning chased down by cups of that amazing, silk-smooth Vietnamese coffee, and Pho Chi Minh do a terrific rendition of Cà phê sữa đá – iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. This is where a bit of patience does wonders – the drip, drip of the strong, strong coffee from the metal drip filter into the cup seemed to stretch out for a lot longer than the six or seven minutes I timed it at, and it’s then poured over crushed ice to give you a wonderful, creamy, turbocharged take on the usual iced coffee. Wonderful.
Prices are the high side of medium, but reasonable for the location. The soups, as I’ve said, represent very fair value given the prime real estate on which Pho Chi Minh sits; add some sides and coffees and your lunch will begin to get a bit more pricey. At my last visit, a couple of items were sold out even at lunchtime, though that’s perhaps not unexpected in these early stages of the restaurant’s existence (they’ve been open roughly since the end of April).
The decor and ambience is what you would expect of a nice mid-range restaurant in the City Hall or Gangnam area – smart tables and seating, and efficient service even in the busiest part of the lunch rush. Personally, I find grungier restaurants a little more to my taste, as it allows me to relax and chill out a bit more, but it’s exactly this sort of smart, midmarket chain-style setting that will attract many more people to come and try it. It’s a nice spot.
Overall, Pho Chi Minh is great, and I am now a confirmed fan. I’m looking forward to seeing them settle down and maybe add the odd item to their menu in the coming months. It’s a fine place for lunch with a colleague or just a solo dinner after work. It’s so great to see the plethora of foreign food options continue to expand into different parts of the city, and long may it continue.
- Category: Vietnamese / Chinese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Pho Sate’ (9,900 won)
- Subway: Gwanghwamun Station (광화문역) exit 3
- Directions: Come out of exit 3 and head away from the main Sejong-daero road (the one that runs up to the palace). The D-tower building is 50 metres or so in front of you, usually accompanied during the day by swarms of smoking office workers. Inside the building, take the escalator all the way up to the fifth floor, passing such places as Bill’s, Paulie’s and Power Plant along the way.
- Hours: 11am-10pm, 7 days a week. Avoid the noon lunch rush during weekdays, especially if you’re a larger group, because the secret is out.