For obsessive Asian foodies like myself, pho is nothing short of a legendary classic. In Vietnam and all over Southeast Asia, this soup is
served day and night in bustling noodle houses right off the street. The enticing aroma of cinnamon, braised beef, and Asian basil floats in the air from several blocks away, irresistibly drawing you in for one of the most multi-dimensional comfort foods out there. It’s the balanced combination of textures, flavors and temperatures that truly make this soup a godly elixir. The broth is by far, the ultimate telltale sign of a good pho. Traditional Vietnamese folk swear by their mother’s broth, claiming their family recipe, often kept secret, is the best. The broth of pho takes a minimum of 24 hours to make and is generally done by boiling down beef bones, oxtail, charred ginger and onion, along with a myriad of spices including star anise, coriander seed, cinnamon, clove, and black cardamom. This week, two Montreal pho houses go to war. May the best bowl win.
Round 1: Pho Tây Hô
My first round of pho tasting was at Pho Tây Hô. I decided to bring a friend along, who is also an Asian food aficionado that certainly knows her pho. As we approached the restaurant, we instantly could smell that signature smell of Vietnamese goodness. We each ordered a full pho of rare beef, well done flank, tripe and tendons. Within minutes, our bowls arrived along with the side plate of bean sprouts, lime wedges, and Asian basil. Unfortunately, just by looking at our bowls, we knew that we were going to be disappointed. First, the beef resting atop our bowls was not pinkish, but fully cooked. The beef is supposed to be rare, so that with a flip of chopsticks, the meat cooks in the steaming soup. Also, the broth was missing that signature glossy golden layer of fat with visible bubbles. Regardless, we dug in. Right away we looked at each other and knew that the broth had been cut with stock, a big no-no! It was opaque, lacking fragrance, and had an unusual greenish tinge to it. Perhaps passable for the average Joe, but not for us pho-enthusiasts. The noodles were obviously store-bought and lacked the silkiness of homemade ones, but sadly that is to be expected since few places make their own noodles nowadays. Glancing around at other pho diners, we noticed that every bowl was different. The color of the broth and cook of the meats greatly varied from bowl to bowl, a trait of unfortunate inconsistency. Perhaps if we had gotten another serving it would have been better, but who knows. Pho Tây Hô had friendly service, good green tea and was overall a good experience, but loses serious points for their pho skills.
Round 2: Pho Lien
Next comes, Pho Lien. This small, yet incredibly busy restaurant has a loyal client base, Asian and Caucasian alike. Very often will they have lineups going all the way up the block. I hadn’t been in a while, so I invited a friend for a bowl on a chilly day. I ordered the usual pho with all the trimmings, and my friend chose the beef meatballs. Steaming bowls arrived at our table almost instantly, as did a grin on my face. Everything was right about this pho. Unlike the pho at Pho Tây Hô, this one had a distinct golden layer of fat bubbles; the broth was clear and smelled of star anise and braised beef. The meat was delicately resting atop a generous amount of coriander and scallions, and was very thinly sliced. To my delight, the beef was perfectly rare. The noodles were perfectly chewy and fresh, pairing excellently with the meats and the coriander, thus creating that textural experience that’s key to a good pho. Also, the tripe in this bowl was very nicely cooked, as were the tendons and fatty flank (melt in your mouth delicious). The soup was very fragrant and beefy, but to my taste, lacked depth and that hint of sweetness. However, all the flavours were there and ended up being a delight.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Pho Lien takes the win. Pho Tây Hô is decent, but lacks the traditional rustic aspect that makes this dish so special. There are hundreds of Vietnamese places in Montreal, but an authentic, solid pho is hard to come by. The winner of this food war is definitely pho real.
Pho Tây Hô is located on 6414 St-Denis St.
Pho Lien is located on 5703 Côte-des-Neiges Rd.