I have never been to Vietnam. But I am a big fan of their beef soup noodles - known as pho bo in Vietnamese. I have tried pho bo in various places - KL, PJ, Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, Sydney, Melbourne, etc. From the various experiences that I had all over, I dare say that perhaps Melbourne offers the best beef noodles outside Vietnam.
In our recent visit there, I made it a point to eat some pho bo. Our hosts took us to not one, but two makan places to try out this famous Vietnamese dish. Both were in St Albans - a suburb about 15 km from Melbourne city. St Albans is a small township with a very large Vietnamese presence. The town centre has some rows of shops and in them are many Vietnamese business establishments - restaurants, mini-markets, etc.
The first Vietnamese makan place we visited was an eatery called Pho Kim Long. This place specializes in beef and chicken noodles. Bee drove us there. She preferred this place to the other because she said the noodle here was more authentic and that the soup not "polluted" by spicy chili.
The place was small and typically Asian - with the menu posted on the wall, an LCD TV playing some Vietnamese karaoke music, an altar for a Taoist deity, and thermo-flasks of free Chinese tea.
We made our orders and soon a plate of taugeh (bean sprout) and fresh basil and mint leaves was put on our table. This is what I like so much about Vietnamese beef noodles - eating with raw taugeh, basil and mint leaves. It enhances the noodles so aromatically.
Bee and I ordered the mix beef and chicken noodles. The noodle was a small version of kaoy teow - the texture and taste was the same. The pieces of beef were sliced very thin and cooked just right - not over done. The meat still showed traces of blood and rawness, and was so very tender and succulent. The chicken meat was obvious from the breast - white and without any trace of fat. Like the beef, the chicken was tender and smooth in the mouth. The soup was most delectable. It was clear and so very sweet. Taken with the raw taugeh, basil and mint leaves, it was a very nice bowl of beef noodles indeed.
My wife does not like beef and opted for a bowl of chicken noodles - or pho ga in Vietnamese. It was very much the same as my bowl sans the beef. She enjoyed the bowl thoroughly.
I don't know why Crystal went for a plate of tomato rice with grilled chicken. She didn't know what she was missing on the noodles. Anyway, the tomato rice turned out very nice too. I had the taste of the chicken and the rice. They were delicious. But I still preferred my noodles.
A few days later, Eddy brought us back to St Albans for brunch. The shop we visited this time was across the road from Pho Kim Long. The name of this place was Song Huong. This shop also specialized in pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken). It is the noodle place of preference for both Alan and Eddy. This was one that Bee did not find to be very authentic.
The place is very much the same as Pho Kim Long - with the LCD TV churning out karaoke English oldies.
We got the all important garnishes of raw taugeh, basil and mint leaves. In addition, we also got a plate of chopped salad.
The pho bo here was somewhat different from the first shop. To start with, the soup was spiced with some chili oil. Still it was sweet and and very tasty. Besides beef, the noodles also came with a nice piece of pork knuckle, a couple of slices of processed meat (I am not sure what they were) and a slab of coagulated pig blood. For those who like the blood, it can be quite tasty. But for various reasons, I put it aside. The beef in this second shop was not as good as that in the first. It was a little over-cooked and not as tender and juicy. I have to agree with Bee that Pho Kim Long served a more authentic beef noodle. But with the additional pork knuckle, I enjoyed it just the same.
The chicken noodle (pho ga) was also different. In stead of sliced breast meat, the shop served chicken with the skin intact. The soup was not spiced. It was clear and very sweet. I think the pho ga in this second shop tasted better.
We had totally satisfying experiences in both noodle shops. I had wanted so badly to go back for a last kopek of beef noodles on the day of our departure from Melbourne. However, because of the timing of our flight, we did not manage to. My hunger for more Vietnamese pho bo lingers on....