When in Vietnam, eat all the pho and banh mi you can find – you won’t get it as good anywhere else, no matter how hard you try.
I went on a journey to find pho, the best pho, and the best banh mi. It was hard to try out the pho in the major restaurants since they were mostly closed during the Tet holiday week. I tried Pho 2000, made famous by a visit from President Clinton years ago, but it was closed the day I went. It opened again later in the week, but of course, I wasn’t nearly hungry enough for noodles and beef at that time. I ended up nursing a coffee in the downstairs Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafe.
However, as I walked through a neighborhood near the 23/9 park and Fine Arts Museum, I found a little street restaurant selling big, steaming bowls of pho bo (beef pho). With some pointing and gesturing, I ended up with a bowl and all the trimmings – minty leaves, basil leaves, chili sauce, scallions, and bean sprouts – sitting in the shade, out of the sun, and enjoying the locals who were staring at me like I was crazy.
The pho was hot, delicious, and filling – just as it should be. The beef was tender, infused with broth, and the veg added crunch amidst the swarm of noodles. It is a really fantastic breakfast soup – one that, according to Eater.com – is changing with the times in Vietnam.
During my week in Vietnam, I couldn’t bring myself to eat at Pho 24 – the major chain of pho shops – because I heard it was so commercial. I wanted to try Pho Hoa on Pasteur Street, but the two times I tried to go, or had time to go, it was closed.
Later in the week, I ended up exploring a more northerly section of District 1 called Da Kao. I passed Pho Binh, which was a historical shop where Viet Cong plotted major moves against the American soldiers upstairs whilst the Americans ate noodle soup below.
I tried out another, larger pho restaurant in this same district, as they looked open. I had the double-beef pho, which had cooked and partially cooked beef in it. I ended up with a table full of condiments to add to my soup, and I dumped in a goodly bit of bean sprouts, mint leaves, and basil. Coupled with a cold Saigon beer, a diet Coke, and ice cold water (I may have been dehydrated at that point), it was a perfect afternoon fill-up after walking around to various temples and churches.
And, of course, I could not miss out on the banh mi. I had nearly forgotten that this iconic sandwich was also part-and-parcel of the street culinary scene in HCMC. I had seen multiple carts full of crusty baguettes on the streets, but I couldn’t figure out what it was they were making. Then, I remembered – banh mi.
Banh mi, in its basic form, is a sandwich formed of an airy, thin-crusted baguette with fillings such as pork belly, pate spread, pork meatballs, grilled pork patty, sausage, cilantro, chili, cucumber, carrot, bean sprouts, fried egg, sardines in some kind of sauce, grilled chicken, cheese, and mayo. It depends on what cart you go to, but some of them include slices of pork-based luncheon meats studded with olives or chilies.
One night, I set out on a quest for a banh mi, and I ended up with three different ones from three different carts. I was looking for the lady who runs the Banh Mi 37 cart on Nguyen Trai, but most of the street was quite dark. I ended up trying my first banh mi from a cart near the massive roundabout near Le Loi and Nguyen Trai. I indicated I wanted all the possible trimmings with the fried egg topper. He had it together in a minute, flopped on the egg, wrapped it in newspaper with a rubberband, and handed it to me for 20,000 VND (85 cents US). Where else can you get a sandwich that inexpensively?
I crouched into a low plastic stool – not the most comfortable position – and munched away as I watched the motorbikes speed crazily around the roundabout and observed locals and tourists alike part-take of the banh mi cart and the fruit/veg smoothie carts.
The fried egg was the perfect complement to the meats. When I hit the yolk, it spilled over the bread and red-ringed pork belly (tucked under the egg) and made the most amazing combination of flavors. With a dash of orangey chili sauce, it was nirvana.
I tried a second banh mi later after walking for some time, but this one was a bit more dry and relied a lot on luncheon meats and some pork belly for its filling. It had some tasty pickled veg for crunch on it.
The third banh mi was inspired by the donor kebab. They saved the large bit of meat into thin slices, topped it with bean sprouts, chili sauce, pickled veg, and cucumber and carrot. This one was interesting, with a mix of flavors, but I had to admit that I was still very partial to the first one I tried. Maybe the first one is always the best one?
I tried a banh mi once I was back home in Hong Kong, but it didn’t quite have the same taste. I guess it’s really about the ambiance when you try a local food for the first time in its homeland, no matter how it’s replicated across the globe.