aka Pho Hien Vuong Pasteur
146 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 1470
I’m almost ashamed to say it, but father forgive me, it’s been over two months since my last bowl of pho. I know, it’s somewhat blasphemous. I used to eat it pretty much every other day when I was living in Viet Nam. Mostly for breakfast, sometimes lunch. For those of you who are planning a visit to Sai Gon, here’s my googlemap of gustatory goodness.
Anyway, I recently had time to stop in at Footscray for a late lunch on my way between work meetings. So there really wasn’t a decision to be made as to what I was going to eat, it was just a matter of where. As I was coming from the West, I thought it would be good to be methodical about these things, so I stopped at the first Pho specialist on Hopkins St. I’ll be systematically working my way down Hopkins St, before trying the other streets of Footscray in search of the ultimate pho.
So first up, on the Westernmost end of Hopkins St, is Hien Vuong. Or rather, Pho Hien Vuong Pasteur. The Pho part of the name is a bit superfluous, but as the noun precedes the adjectival phrase in Vietnamese, I suppose it’s like saying ‘Hien Vuong’s Pho’, the way you’d say Danny’s Burgers. The ‘Pasteur’ part is, I believe, the restaurant’s attempt to attach itself to the legendary Pho Hoa restaurant on Pasteur St, opposite the Pasteur Institute, in Sai Gon. There’s a Pho Pasteur in Sydney doing the same thing… oh, and I’ll be blogging on that soon!
Hien Vuong is an unassuming pho specialist joint, with the requisite TV screens – oddly playing children’s television and not some Vietnamese entertainment gala (there were no children in the restaurant at the time) – mirrored walls, laminated tables and accents of bad 90s decor. Everything a pho joint should have, on the surface.
For those of you who don’t know, or can’t remember, I almost invariably order the pho bo dac biet
, more commonly referred to as the beef special. For some reason, I decided to go for the ‘small’ this day. As I’ve expounded before
, I have a theory that at some restaurants, this just means you get the same amount of pho in a smaller bowl. I think it’s the case at Hien Vuong.
There are three things that make or break a pho for me. The broth, the beef (and offal), and of course the noodles.
First, and most importantly, the broth. This is what varies the most from restaurant to restaurant, each having their own recipe, no doubt. Pho broth should be clear, and relatively oil-free. It should smell punchy and fragrant, with cinnamon, cardamom, star-anise and cloves all present in the mix. There should be the tiniest bite from the ginger, and a sweetness from the onions. It should taste like beef, not MSG. Though the umami should be palpable. You should NEVER have to add fish sauce nor hoi sin sauce to a good broth. They’re at the table for you to dip your tripe and other offal into. It pains me to see people with murky dark brown pho broth, almost as much as it pains me to see people dumping soy sauce all over their fried rice. The only things you should be adding to flavour your pho broth are lemon juice, and fresh chillies.
The broth at Hien Vuong was pretty good, despite a definite, though not too heavy-handed, use of MSG.
There are various standard items involved in a pho bo dac biet
. The core of these comprises of the beef brisket – which should have a certain amount of fat on it, I feel – and the rare beef, which is essentially raw fillet, over which the piping hot broth is ladled. It should arrive at your table still pink. A little jiggling around in the broth usually cooks it to the right degree.
Then you have your processed meats. There’s almost always some beef balls (no, not bull testicles, but more hyper-processed meat balls, with a springy texture) and usually, you get a slice of a peppery beef sausage.
Finally, there’s the offal. Tripe, and if you’re lucky, tendon. Most places serve up the thinner part of the tripe, which looks something like those strippy curtains you see at an automatic car wash, or some tatty vertical blinds. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I get a chunkier piece, though it still usually won’t be the honeycomb tripe you get at yum cha. The tendon pieces are usually chunky cylinders with a texture somewhere between chewy and gelatinous. They’re something of an acquired taste, I think. I used to be a bit put off by them as a child, but I love them now. Both of these, I like to dip in a mixture of hoi sin and chilli sauce.
The various beef goods at Hien Vuong were of good quality – especially the rare beef, and the peppery beef sausage. The brisket could have done with a little more fat, but I’m being picky now.
The noodles, in my experience in Melbourne, don’t tend to vary too much from restaurant to restaurant. However, what is important here is the noodle-to-beef ratio. You don’t want too much noodle and not enough beef, but at the same time, I hate running out of noodles and having all this beef left over floating around in the broth. So it’s a tender balancing act. Hien Vuong walks the line on this quite well.
While it’s got stiff competition I’m sure, Hien Vuong stands up quite well, and I’m sure I’ll be back, barring the discovery of Ultimate pho.