What’s in a bowl of noodles that can make all your troubles go away?
Yes, I do love a piquant bowl of curry laksa or my own decadent version of pork belly prawn noodles. On the same token, ramen is definitely an option when this Japanese noodle craze is ravaging Sydney right about now.
But when I feel a little sluggish after that infamous ‘one for the road’ G&T or when howling wind splashes cold rain against my window seal on a dark wintry day, I look to a cure for all ills. I long for a revival that rivals the warmest of hugs from Mysaucepan while listening to Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1.
I yearn for a heart-warming bowl of Vietnamese beef pho.
I have been to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on numerous occasions and have sampled pho in its various denominations. The style of pho in Vietnam differs from the subdued and elegant flavours of the north to the more punchy and exotic aromas of the south.
Flavour complexity of the broth can also vary from the more elaborate and better quality ingredients used in hotels and restaurants to street pho prepared by elderly women carrying the livelihood of their entire pho business in two huge containers on each end of a stick balanced on their frail shoulders.
Back in Sydney, it is heartening for Vietnamese pho lovers. Heartening because the standard of pho in our fair city is truly world-class. In my opinion, any one of Sydney’s most prominent pho restaurants can rival the very best that Vietnam can dish out.
In a recent article on Sydney’s best pho by Thang Ngo, writer of popular Sydney food blog Noodlies.com, he tells of the history and magic of why this bowl of noodles is one of the most revered in the world.
Although he does not specifically mention which is Sydney’s best, I believe pho punters familiar with the city’s most popular will assume Pho Tau Bay to be his nomination by virtue of being top of the list. As a pho lover, I am inspired and I’m on a mission find my own list of Sydney’s best pho.
I have heard so much about Pho Tau Bay but have never been, until now.
So here’s my review.
The dining room of Pho Tau Bay is not a big space.
The restaurant is almost full during mid-week lunch and a cursory walkabout confirms my suspicion the majority are either about to or already slurping up some smooth, slithery pho noodles.
I love the condiment platter at Vietnamese restaurants. They remind me that good food is meant to be simple, honest and hearty. These sauces also give me something to do while waiting for my bowl of noodles.
Unlike many pho lovers I have seen, I never add hoisin or chilli sauce into my pho broth. To me, it is criminal to do so. Criminal because stock which has been painstakingly simmered for ten hours or more should be given due respect.
I am neither Vietnamese nor a pho expert.
But I believe the beefy goodness from fresh bones slowly simmering for hours enhanced by nuances of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and so many other secret ingredients should be savoured without any added condiments.
However, I enjoy enhancing beef flavours with fresh chillies and this is just my first helping.
Usually, I go through a second helping of similar size. No, I’m not a chilli addict and yes I do love fresh chillies, especially with beef pho.
My experience with beansprouts in many pho restaurants is you have the option of either fresh or blanched to reduce the raw flavour and crunchy texture.
According to Thang, they usually ask if you want your beansprouts blanched. Perhaps I have a “I prefer my beansprouts blanched because it keeps my broth piping hot” written on my forehead because a plate of blanched sprouts is plonked on our table without warning. But, I suspect pho lovers who like fresh sprouts will find this unacceptable.
Although I love mint leaves, I don’t add it to my pho. But for those who like mint with their pho, tearing the leaves from the stem is all part of the fun as long as they are fresh. So, this is my first experience where mint leaves have been picked from their stems.
I order a pho dac biet or special beef pho and my friend Dearest Kidney opts for a pho tai or raw beef.
Perhaps it’s strange the waiter doesn’t bother asking what size we want our pho and proceeds to bring me a large and Dearest Kidney a medium size. Either our waiter has six sense or is extremely perceptive as it turns out to be exactly the size we both are after.
The noodles are silky smooth and they slither down my throat like a hungry snake looking for its first meal after a long hibernation.
The broth is truly one of the best in the business – subtle, yet with distinctive hints of star anise, cloves and spices. Perhaps more onions would make a difference but very thinly sliced shallots do more than its job of looking pretty as garnish.
I have tasted very fresh and tender pho tai that arrives literally rare and gently cooks away in the piping hot broth. Here, it’s almost cooked through, slightly firmer with its last remaining gasp of blushing pink.
Being a dac biet or special pho, the pho tai is complemented by a generous mix of beef balls, tripe and tendon. I love the rubbery texture of tripe, especially when dipped into my own concoction of chilli, light soy, fish sauce and lemon juice. The spectrum for good beef tendon in pho can range from gently crunchy to almost jelly-like. The bits of tendon in my bowl can perhaps take on the simmering duration of one more Chinese chess game by the chef, provided he doesn’t tease his opponent or give up too easily if on a losing streak.
There are many ways to slurp up a bowl of pho. Being fairly dexterous with my hands, I can easily manoeuvre a pair of chopsticks and prefer to slurp my pho using chopsticks. Yet, I know of others who prefer to eat pho daintily off a soup spoon instead. Regardless, I rate this bowl of pho as one of the best in Sydney.
Perhaps ex-councillor of Fairfield City Council Thang Ngo played his part in transforming Cabramatta to be one of the most vibrant multicultural communities in Australia where Vietnamese pho stamps its mark as a world class staple, or he has simply sprinkled some addictive substance into my broth.
Pho Tau Bay
12/117 John street
Cabramatta, New South Wales
Tel: +61 2 9726 4583
Opening hours: Seven days 8am – 7pm.