Monday, February 26, 2007

Travel Dish: Pho 24 (Vietnam)

This is the ninth in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.The Starbucks of Pho Honors a Classic
Various locations
Saigon/HCMC, Hanoi, Hue and Danang
Web site

One of the first Vietnamese dishes I ate when living in Honolulu was the tasty pho. I became a quick fan of this light-but-rich broth combined with thin rice noodles and equally thin slices of meat.

So when I visited Vietnam, I was excited to taste pho in its authentic surroundings. Pho, a common breakfast meal, is often eaten by the Vietnamese people from a sidewalk vendor. It’s common to see men and women crouched over a big bowl of pho while sitting on small plastic chairs. Pho sellers would deliver bowls of their precious soup on trays to workers nearby. (I even had pho offered in my breakfast buffet at my hotel.)

Some of you already know from reading my earlier posts about Vietnam that I was a wimp when it came to the heat and humidity of Saigon/HCMC. I rarely ate on the street because of this. So when I had a craving for a warm bowl of pho but didn’t want to sweat off any more weight, I popped into any one of the many Pho 24 restaurants around town.

Started in 2003 in Saigon, Pho 24 has upped the ante on this soup classic. Opening clean, air-conditioned noodle shops selling a variety of pho, Pho 24 has become the Starbucks of Vietnamese soup noodles. Today, there are more than 40 of the green-and-yellow storefronts throughout Vietnam, with plans to open them in the Philippines and Indonesia.

While some might smirk at the commercialism of this traditional Vietnamese dish, Pho 24 provides a consistency and high level of service that makes this country’s first pho chain more than just another fast-food restaurant. The broth is just as good as those from street vendors, and you get the added bonus of an air-conditioned setting. Sure, you pay a bit more than what you’d pay on the street, but I say it’s worth it.

Pho 24 has saved me many times when I came back from a long day of sight-seeing and needed a quick dinner without the fuss. Or times when I got lost in a neighborhood not knowing where to go to eat. I always knew that if I saw the green-and-yellow Pho 24 sign, I could count on a good bowl of pho to satisfy my hunger. (And they seemed like they were literally everywhere. There were two about 10 minutes away from my hotel in opposite directions.)

Pho 24 says it got its name because of the 24 ingredients used in the broth and the 24 hours it takes to make it. I don’t know if this is actually true or just a very smart marketing position, but the broth definitely taste fresh and home-made. Is it different than the level of broth at some pho joints in the Bay Area? No, both are equally well done. I found that the difference often lies in the herbs used to add to your pho.

In the United States, you get your basic thai basil, lime wedges, jalepeno and bean sprouts. In Vietnam, you see a lot more variety of herbs, including pandan leaves and taro strips. The combination creates a freshness that makes you forget about the 90-degree heat outside.

At Pho 24, you can order other extras to add to your pho (the basic beef pho sells for D24,000 or $1.50). Probably a reflection of its fast-food format, it also offers special combos such as a pho-beer-spring rolls meal for D60,000 (or $3.75). While I was there, the chain also launched a new “supersized” pho called the pho to lon (a large bowl with extra noodles) for D39,000 (or $2.45).

Another feature at Pho 24 that you won’t find on the street is a smoothie bar where you can order delicious cool drinks (I had the papaya smoothie, yum!) to go with your pho. They also offer desserts, but I didn’t really try any of them since I was more interested in the pho.

The service was also consistently friendly in my various visits to different locations. Once, the noodle chef took a break from his soup station and walked by my table to point out all the various condiments I could add to enhance my pho experience. But really, with good clean broth you don’t need much to have a great meal.

Pho 24’s popularity, even among local Vietnamese, is spawning copycats such as Pho 5 and others, some even copying Pho 24’s logo and look. Who knew so much fuss could be made about a simple street food?
Single guy rating: 3 stars (perfect for foodies looking for comfort)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Postscript Saigon: Playing Chicken Crossing the Street

If you’re planning a trip to Saigon/HCMC, you’ll often read in guidebooks and hear from tour guides about the horror of crossing the streets in the city. With the multitude of motorbikes buzzing around, you rarely get a chance to cross the street safely. So what do you do? Everyone recommends blind faith: basically it’s like closing your eyes and walking at a steady pace hoping others will skirt around you.

I found crossing the street more like playing a game of Asteroids. I was the moving battleship avoiding bombs coming at me from the bad guys. (The motorbikes were the bombs hurling toward me.) So I crossed the street whenever I saw a pattern of opening in the flow of motorbikes.

But it’s not always this frenetic. More streets corners are installing traffic signals. And while it’s still taking a few Vietnamese people some time to learn to follow the traffic lights, more and more are beginning to stop at red. So when you see a mass of motorbikes stopping, then you know that’s your chance to cross. Some intersections in the tourist areas are manned by “traffic escorts” who will take a skittish tourist or group of tourists across the street while holding up his hand to stop traffic. And you thought New York streets were crazy?

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