Vietnam’s national dish, pho, is said to have originated in Hanoi in the early 1900s as one simple variety — pho bo.
At that time, Vietnamese did not use cattle as a source for food and it wasn’t until French colonisation that the idea of eating beef was introduced. The French slaughtered cows for steak, and the leftover bones and scraps were salvaged and sold by a few of Hanoi’s butchers.
The first pho noodle soup was an adjusted version of xau trau — a simple water buffalo broth over vermicelli noodles — using beef and banh pho. It was not until later that street vendors began cooking variations of the dish, adding herbs, Chinese five-spice, frills of raw beef, and taking banh pho out of the broth to cook it in other ways.
Over time, the concept of pho began to develop. Pho xao don — pan fried pho noodles topped with stir fry — was created in around 1930, and pho with chicken (pho ga) emerged in 1939 as a response to a government ban on slaughtering cows. It was not originally well received, but over the years it has become one of Vietnam’s recognised specialities.
Today, many restaurants choose to serve pho ga exclusively. Hungry to try some, I went looking for some of Saigon’s tastiest renditions, deciding on the following three.
Mien Pho Ga 43 Mac Dinh Chi
10 Phung Khac Khoan, Q1
Open 6am to 9pm
VND30,000 per bowl
This is a long, slender space with dark, wooden tables and an open kitchen to your right as you enter. Broth boils steadily in vats behind the counter and loosely diced spring onions lie in a sieve, ready to be tossed on top of each steaming bowl as it passes on its way to a table.
They only sell chicken here. The pho broth is clear, light and gently flavoured with a slight pepperiness to it. You can eat it poured over soft banh pho, mien or bun, and with your choice of chicken meat.
It is not particularly fragrant, relying on condiments and herbs for complexity of flavour. There is a tray of extras on the table — chilli, lime, soy sauce, a salt and pepper mix, lemon leaves slit into tiny strips, and the bottles of tuong den and tuong ot typically offered with pho.
Each bowl is served with a little plate of Thai basil, curls of shredded morning glory and bean sprouts — just enough to lift what is otherwise a simple, but satisfying meal.
Pho Ga Son Nga
126 Phan Xich Long, Phu Nhuan
Open 7am to 10pm
VND35,000 per bowl
With its wide seating area, open to the street and set a little way back from the traffic, this restaurant is a great place to go for a slow meal and a spot of people watching.
The pho ga here is sweet but light, based on a simple chicken broth. It is no more fragrant than at the first restaurant and a similar bowl of shredded lemon leaves waits on the table to be added to the mix.
Other condiments and fresh chilli are also available, and a small plate of Thai basil, banana flower and bean sprouts comes with your bowl. The chicken served at this restaurant is deliciously tender, with a thick layer of soft fat and plenty of flavour.
As seems to be the way with most pho ga joints, this meat can also be eaten with sticky rice, chao or broken rice. Everything is chopped and boiled behind a big glass cabinet stacked with bowls and plates, overlooking the street.
Pho Mien Ga Ky Dong
14/5 Ky Dong, Q3
Open 5am to 11.30pm
VND40,000 per bowl
Turn left from Ky Dong into the wide mouth of Hem 14 and head down to number five. Inside is a bustling mix of tables, drink stands, staff and cooks, and every few minutes another customer walks in. There’s a real sense of industry — this is the kind of place that is probably always full.
The pho here is heavier than at either of the other restaurants, with a thicker, richer broth and an oilier garnish. It is also sweeter and dusted with crispy fried shallots and fresh spring onions.
You can order your broth with your choice of noodles — hu tieu, bun, mi trung, mi goi or banh pho. Eat your meal with a tartly sweet sinh to or a densely black ca phe da from the wall of drink stands on one side of the room.
A plate of blanched bean sprouts comes with your soup, as well as a generous mix of Thai basil, Vietnamese mint and saw tooth, and the usual condiments sit on the table.