Wednesday, November 03, 2010

good pho in toronto?

Phe Tien Thanh

I have not been to Vietnam, but I do love a bowl of pho, especially when I have a severe hangover or when it is miserably cold outside. I had pho for the first time when I was a freshmen in college in Seattle. My dad's friend Uncle 劉 who has lived there for more than 20 years welcomed me to the emerald city by taking me out to lunch at a pho joint that is known as the 'pink shack' (as I found out later), located just north of the chinatown. To me, that experience was right up there amongst the times I first tried delicacies like Foie gras, hairy crabs, aged Bordeaux, truffle, etc.

I have had countless bowls all over the places since then, some good some not so good, most simply serviceable and none I can think of that surpasses the pink shack. It is possible that the 'pink shack' is that good (many in greater seattle area swear by it), but the power of that first jilt probably had something to do with it.

In SF, I ate pho at the places in the loin, and sometimes go to the place on Broadway that opens until 4 am when I am good and drunk. Pho became something of a utility meal, not something I seek out. Perhaps it really is just meant to be a simple morning / midday (or late night for me) meal as it is supposedly in Vietnam. But the potential for greatness is there, like steak frites, when all the components are thoughtfully, correctly rendered, the combined affair can be uniquely delicious and satisfying.

I have tried pho at all the shops in the downtown/chinatown area in Toronto in the last two years or so, the best was average, none of them inspire a visit when I have the inclination to boil my own noodles. But only until recently, I have not been to either of the two places on Ossington that I have heard good things about.

The pho at Pho Tien Thanh is good, not pink shack good, but way above the downtown places. What you get here are: slightly cloudy and deeply flavored broth (not too much MSG), standard rice sticks but cooked just right, not a tangled mess (less common than you think), rare beef that is pretty much raw, slices of tender brisket with good amount of fat, tendons/tripe that are not tough but still retain their unique texture. In addition to the lime wedge, basil, sprout, they also give you a whole bird's eye chili, and couple leafs of saw-tooth coriander (regular coriander in the broth). One key thing about this pho that I really appreciated was the temperature of the broth, it stays piping hot even after you add the herbs, sprouts, hot sauce and stirred it all together; lukewarm pho is not good pho in my books. You can tell that a good bit of care was put into constructing this bowl of noodle soup that I would travel to Ossington for, even in the winter.

Rua Vang Golden Turtle

I waited a full two weeks before I checked out the Golden Turtle because I wanted to give it a fair shake after such a good showing from Pho Tien Thanh. But that didn't help. The pho at Golden Turtle was just okay, really pale in comparison next to Pho Tien Thanh. The broth was sweeter and fattier but has less flavor. Rare beef was not as raw nor as tender, brisket was good, but the tripe was way too chewy (I didn't get any tendon for some reason). Coriander of any kind was absent in the soup or on the side; I don't know if that is traditional, but I liked it very much at Tien Thanh, so now I want it in my pho. And finally, the soup did not come to the table nearly as hot as it should be, big minus.

you have to take this with a bucket of salt (n=1), but at Pho Tien Thanh, I saw one white person in a full restaurant (the rest of the patron were vietnamese or chinese), at golden turtle, there were maybe three asian dudes there include me. I am really not a fucking racist, nor do I believe that you can't get good and authentic asian food at a restaurant full of white people, I am just reporting something that I found intriguing.

All I know in the end is that when I feel like a bowl of pho next time around, I am going to Pho Tien Thanh.

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