I’m just back from a wonderful twelve days in Vietnam and oh my lord, the street food. So much pho, banh mi, bun cha, and everything served with a mountain of fresh herbs and a bill for $1-2 at most. Vietnamese food seems to be having a moment in Seoul right now, as everything does eventually. Everyone and his wife is churning out banh mi and some of them are doing a pretty decent job.
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).
Regular readers will be aware of my enjoyment of Vietnamese pho, which for the uninitiated is a beef and noodle soup served with herbs, thinly sliced onions, lime and chilli sauce to taste. Most Korean chain pho is rubbish, but there is the odd gem here and there doing it right, most notably Pham Thi Chinh in Wangsimni.
Pho For You is much closer to where I live – a four minute walk rather than a 40 minute journey. So when it opened up a few weeks back I was intrigued, and a positive review on a Facebook page made me curious to go in.
Advertising itself as an American pho restaurant, Pho For You is a nicely appointed restaurant with plenty of seating just past Craftworks Namsan, in Gyeongnidan. The menu is quite small; a couple of spring rolls, rice dishes, and the main event, the pho. I had been told that pho in the States is usually made with a deeper and darker broth, which often leads people to be disappointed with the “real thing” when they actually visit Vietnam.
Certainly as soon as it comes to the table you can see and smell the difference. The broth is certainly darker and a bit more intense. I’m not sure it tasted all that rich to me, but there was no mistaking the depth of colour. I added some bean sprouts, coriander, a bit of green chilli, Sriracha and hoi sin, and squeezed over some lime.
Verdict? Pretty solid. The portion of meat was quite generous, as I’d have expected for the slightly high price of 9,000 for the regular bowl (I ordered the version which comes with two cuts of meat, brisket and deckle; you can get it with other bits and pieces, including tripe, if that’s your fancy). I felt it lacked much in the way of complexity; the broth was flavourful, but not particularly aromatic. I ended up adding more of everything to amp up the taste.
I also ordered some shrimp spring rolls, but they were out, so I didn’t get to try that. I’ll be back to experiment with some of the other menu items, and its convenience so close to my bus stop to work means that this is likely to be a semi-regular lunch stop for me. But Pham Thi Chinh retains its crown, for now.
- Category: Vietnamese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Pho with brisket and deckle (9,000 won)
- Directions: Pho for You is at the base of the footbridge which connects HBC with Gyeongnidan, just a bit past Craftworks. From Noksapyeong, walk up towards Namsan until you get to the bridge, and you’ll see Pho for You on the other side of the road.
- Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, lunch and dinner – I think.
The flavours of Vietnam aren’t that easy to replicate here – beef bones for stock are tricky to source, and ingredients like Vietnamese herbs and limes are either hard to find or prohibitively pricey. Korean pho chains abound, but with few exceptions they are insipid and disappointing. But with a growing Vietnamese community here, there are a few places where one can find a legit bowl of pho (phở is apparently the proper spelling), the spicy-sour beef noodle soup that you find everywhere in Vietnam and dream of for months after you leave.
Foremost among these is a restaurant which is a little out of the way, a well-kept secret that was new to me until this week and which is now my first choice for this excellent soup. It’s called Pham Thi Chinh and it involves getting on the subway to Wangsimni. (Directions are at the bottom of this post.)
There are two Vietnamese places in the same building complex, oddly enough. This is the superior of the two. (The other is Quân An Asean and you can read my review of it here.) It looks like any small Korean diner or kimbap place, but on any given day, a goodly number of the customers are Vietnamese, albeit there appears to be a healthy collection of Korean regulars as well.
The menu is simple but has a few different options (there’s also a photo menu on the back if you don’t read hangeul or, um, Vietnamese). The pho is served with cilantro, bean sprouts and chopped red chilli on the side. Be careful with the latter – these are not the harmless Korean chillis but fiery little buggers that you should add in moderation. There’s also the usual sriracha-style chilli sauce, the brown sauce whose name I forget, and some little squeezy bottles of lime juice to add to taste.
The pho was good, very good. I was told they make the broth the proper way, without loads of MSG and flavour packets which are common shortcuts elsewhere. I can believe it; it was satisfying and hearty, and due to the fact I emptied the whole side dish of chopped chillis into my soup, I was sweating with an intensity that belied the chilly temperatures outside. 7,000 for a goodly-sized bowl, and there’s also a fuck-off big bowl for 10,000 won.
As well as the soup, I also ordered something called chả giò, which are little spring rolls filled with minced pork (amusingly referred to as “mandu” on the Korean menu). With a little sweet chilli dip, these were really great – not too greasy, not too crumbly, just right. I could have eaten two platefuls of these on their own, though it probably wouldn’t be good for my ever-expanding waistline. Just 5,000 won, I’ll definitely have these again next time.
I ended with an iced coffee (cà phê đá). Goddamn, this was good – it took me right back to sitting on the sidewalk in Hanoi, mopeds flashing past my chair, trying to cool down in the evening heat. Caramelly, sweet and strong, this is the drink a Starbucks macchiato wishes that it could be when it grows up – and, at 3,000 won, not much more than half the price, too.
Overall, I’ll certainly be back to try the other items on the menu, with the possible exception of the Hanoi Vodka, which looked a bit lethal. It’s a bit of a trek to Wangsimni, but I’ll go a long way for a good bowl of pho, and this is the best I’ve found in Seoul by far. If you happen to be in the market for something similar, check it out – I don’t think it’ll disappoint you.
- Category: Vietnamese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Phở bo
- Hours: 11-9pm seven days a week, though possibly with a mid-afternoon break, depending.
- Subway: Wangsimni Station (왕십리역) exit 2.
- Directions: Come out of Wangsimni Station exit 2 and walk along the road for three or four minutes until you reach the petrol station (below), then turn left.
- At the top of the small road, on the right, is an apartment block. As you keep walking, with the apartment building on your right, Pham Thi Chinh is at the end of the little row of shops along the ground floor, to the left of the apartments’ main entrance.
A couple of months ago, as documented in this post, I spent a day or so in Jeonju, the culinary capital of Korea, eating and drinking my way round some of the signature foods of the region. There were lots of good things packed into that 24 hours or so, not least a really nice bibimbap on our way back to the bus station, but the undoubted highlight for me was – wait for it – a bowl of soup. No ordinary soup, this was the kalguksu (noodle soup) at the mighty Veteran in central Jeonju. A thick, hearty, lifechanging bowl of soup, a soup that brought me closer to Jesus and all His saints, a soup to make a man smash out all his teeth just to have an excuse never to eat solid food again. I supped on the broth in my dreams, and woke up sweating.
In case I’m being unclear, I really liked the soup.
So when my friend Sky casually dropped into conversation a couple of weeks back that there was a branch of Veteran in Seoul, I felt like strangling her with a knife-cut noodle. Why didn’t you tell me, I shouted, almost weeping with the injustice of it all. Why have you allowed this soup to be absent from my life for even a moment longer than necessary? There was not a moment to waste. I buried her body in an unmarked plot near the river and made a beeline for Express Bus Terminal, where this soupy nirvana was promised to me.
All buses were leading to Express Bus Terminal! It was a sign from Jebus, or perhaps the Flying Noodle Monster – He (or She) wanted me to be one with everything, but particularly with the soup. I jumped off the bus while it was still moving, I strode through the doors on a mission. Commuters parted before me, probably assuming I was late for a bus, or perhaps running for a tearful reunion with a loved one, which in a sense I was. And suddenly, there was the sign.
I hadn’t been this excited since Uma Thurman wore a leather catsuit in The Avengers back in 1998. There were a couple of other items on the menu, but my focus was laser-like. Within a couple of minutes, out came the soup. It looked the same. It smelled the same. Was it the same?
Atop the soup, all present and correct, are the Holy Trinity of savoury flavourings that elevates this bowl of noodles past the ordinary: gochugaru (red pepper flakes), roasted seaweed flakes, and ground perilla seeds.
It’s this last that makes Veteran’s kalguksu, if not exactly unique, at least different. I only discovered yesterday that the deulkkae seeds, (들깨 in Korean) also known as wild sesame, are the seeds of the perilla leaf, or gaennip (깻잎), which is one of my favourite parts of any Korean BBQ meal, so much more interesting than flavour-killing lettuce. So the perilla plant is now my favourite plant, albeit in a less than crowded field. In its seedier form, the perilla gives an edge to the broth that I can’t quite describe – a bit nutty, and indeed a little like roasted sesame seeds. Or maybe coriander seeds. Whatever. I like the seeds.
Veteran’s kalguksu also boasts a broth far richer and cloudier than the norm, thickened with egg and, no doubt, all sorts of other goodness. I take a tentative sip: so far, so good. Just look at that f*cking broth.
But now comes the ultimate test; the noodles. Are they the same as the original? I grab the slippery strands with the chopsticks and bite.
There’s no doubt that Veteran, sited as it is in the middle of the busiest bus terminal in the country, lacks the atmosphere and majesty of the Jeonju headquarters, and it suffers a little from the holiday wine syndrome – that bottle of cheap vino blanco that tasted like heaven at a little table on the beach with freshly-caught white fish somehow loses its charm when you uncork it on a wet Wednesday night in Huddersfield.
But, having been back a couple of times now, I’m convinced that the soup itself remains of the very highest quality. It’s bursting with flavour, feels healthy even if I’m sure it’s not, and endlessly warming and filling – this would be great in winter, I think. It doesn’t seem to get much love from users on Naver, which puzzles me. Maybe there’s something about the herbiness of the soup that doesn’t make everyone happy. Well, if that gets me a seat at lunchtime, so much the better.
Can I honestly recommend that you travel halfway across the city just to try it? Well, if you do, half of you will fall in love and the other half will be wondering why the hell I was raving about it. If you’re not the sort of person who thinks they could fall in love with a bowl of soup, then you should probably look elsewhere for your lunch tomorrow. But I do think everyone owes it to themselves to try it, and find out if you hear the angels singing to you as I did.
Judging by the popularity of this place at lunchtime – I walked in at ten past two on a Friday and it was full – it’s only a matter of time until other branches open around the city, if they haven’t already. Until then, all roads lead to Veteran.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Please don’t ask silly questions.
- Subway: Express Bus Terminal exit 8, follow the signs for Central City and/or the Honam Line.
- Directions: Veteran is on the left as you enter the building from the main city bus dropoff point / subway exit 8. It’s a bit of a maze in there, so good luck.
- Hours: No idea. Sorry!
Ever since I visited Vietnam five years ago, I’ve hankered after an authentic bowl of their finest creation, pho (or phở as apparently it should be written). This great beef soup is probably familiar to you, but (at the risk of being a Lonely Planet bore) it doesn’t taste the same outside of Vietnam, and there is certainly nothing in Seoul to rival the glorious versions I had in Hanoi and Saigon. Vietnamese-style chains were all the rage here a while ago, and there are still lots of Pho Meins, Pho Bays and even a What the Pho to be found in Korea, but they are, almost always, garbage, pale imitations of the real thing.
I used to be a big fan of Le Saigon in Gyeongnidan, but my last few visits there have been pretty meh and I fear the quality there has been compromised for the sake of the local palate. I’d also been told that there was good pho to be had out in Ansan, where many migrants from SE Asia live, but that seemed a bit of a trek even for a noted glutton like myself.
For some time, though, I had heard tell of a place in Wangsimni that served up huge steaming bowls of the authentic stuff from the bowels of an otherwise unremarkable food court. So when I found myself transferring subway lines at lunchtime it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
The restaurant really isn’t a restaurant; it’s a counter in the food court of an apartment block in the middle of nowhere. There was no doubting the authenticity of the enterprise, though; the menu has just a few items, all in Vietnamese, including my target for the day, a great-looking beef phở.
Within a couple of minutes, the lovely Vietnamese lady was ladling up a big-ass bowl of this stuff. She added spring onions, sliced white onion and some pepper and who knows what else. The clinching sign that I was no longer in chain-restaurant hell was the side-plate of accompaniments; not only some fiery red chillies far removed from the bland nonsense you get in Pho Bay, but a healthy pile of fresh herbs on the stem, twigs and all – coriander (itself quite rare in Korean “Vietnamese” restaurants) and something resembling mint that I couldn’t identify but threw in anyway. A squirt of two of brown sauce, Sriracha and lemon juice, and I was good to go.
The soup was a little sweeter than I had recalled it from my long-ago holiday, and it needed a generous hand with the chilli and the lemon to amp up the flavours. Since it was a swelteringly humid July day I went a little easy on the heat, and afterwards somewhat regretted it. On the other hand, the fresh herbs really lifted the taste and the noodles and beef were just right.
Overall, I enjoyed it and the somewhat grungy ambience only added to the feeling that you really could be, just for a moment, back in Hanoi sipping on a 30 cent beer. It wasn’t by any means amazing, and I’m not sure I’d make the trip especially… but if you are in the area or you have a craving for the real thing, this may be as close as you’ll get without heading out to Ansan – or Saigon.
Quân An Asean (once known as Little Vietnam I believe) is a little tricky to find, but that’s all part of the fun. Come out of Wangsimni Station exit 2 (a solid five minute schlep from the tracks before you get above ground) and walk along the road for four or five minutes until you reach a petrol station, like so.
Hang a left at the gas station and you will quickly see a Holly’s Coffee and, opposite it and to the right, the Centerville apartment and grandly titled “shopping mall”, which has perhaps seen better days.
If you don’t speak Vietnamese or Korean then just point to what you want. The ladies are very helpful and the service is swift. They have some great coffee, as you would expect, but don’t expect a fancy atmosphere – this is food court central.
- Category: Vietnamese
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: phở.
- Subway: Wangsimni (왕김니역) exit 2
- Directions: Come out of Wangsimni Station exit 2 and walk along the road for four or five minutes until you reach the petrol station, then turn left. Opposite the Holly’s Coffee is a small apartment block with some steps down to the right. The food court is down there on the left.
- Hours: Your guess is as good as mine, but I first tried to go there on a Monday and it was closed, so I’m going to say office hours Tuesday – Friday at the least, and maybe the weekend as well. But please don’t take my word for it.