Chicken Pho Worth The Money

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SaigonTimes English - 32 month(s) ago 4 readings

Chicken Pho Worth The Money

The ups and downs of chicken pho, a trilling variation of the traditional beef pho

Chicken Pho Worth The Money

By Quynh Thu

Chicken pho gives dinners an exciting variation of the traditional pho
The ups and downs of chicken pho, a trilling variation of the traditional beef pho

It is no wild exaggeration to say that pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) is a cultural ambassador of Vietnamese cuisine. Together with cha giò (Vietnamese spring rolls), pho is arguably the Vietnamese specialty best known to foreigners.

This statement is true in a sense, too, as far as the Vietnamese history is concerned. Pho was invented in the north, and then traveled southward. Saigon has been good earth for this northern dish so much so that the northern dish has won over other local rivals to clinch the top or second place in the Saigonese menu of the most popular foods.

When it comes to pho, it reminds expatriates who have tasted this dish of beef. Few know, however, that beef is only one option. Saigonese pho-lovers also opt for pho gà (chicken pho) which true food connoisseurs from afar shouldn’t miss on their trips to Vietnam.

Basically, the recipe for chicken pho is largely similar to the traditional [beef] pho. According to the best pho cooks, essential to have their distinctive broth is a “secret” bundle consisting of different spices. How to prepare this bundle will decide eventually whether the stock is good or not, and thus, the quality of the pho bowl. Normally, in addition to roasted spring onion bulbs are also star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon bark and cardamom.

What makes chicken pho different from beef pho is essentially broth. While broth of the traditional pho is prepared by boiling bones of oxen or cows, a chicken pho cook uses, you know, chicken instead. The cook then boils the spice bundle with chicken heads and necks.

Accompanying a really delicious chicken pho are also some ingredients inextricable from the local “genuine” pho, for instance basil, saw-leaf herb, bean sprouts, yellow bean sauce and red chili sauce. The only differences between the two are broth and chicken!

A word must be added here to the right kind of chicken used for a tasty chicken pho bowl. The chicken of choice must be free-range ones. Those poultry are of course much more expensive than industrial chicken. So, rest assured that an excellent chicken pho bowl is always worth your money.

Chicken pho used to be very popular in Saigon. In his book Nhớ Sài Gòn (Remembering Saigon) published in 1994, the late writer Minh Huong wrote, “… chicken pho-lovers should travel as far as Tan Dinh area—Hien Vuong Street (now Vo Thi Sau)—to have a wide choice. A row of six or seven restaurants standing side by side offers only chicken pho.”

All the chicken pho restaurants mentioned by Minh Huong are gone now except one. It is Huong Binh chicken pho restaurant which is the most famous of its kind that has managed to weather the ups and downs.

When Saigon Stories revisited Huong Binh last week, the restaurant seems to show little change since the first visit many years ago. Come inside Huong Binh and you’ll see the curved cashier counter on the left and the main counter with two broth tanks on the right. At VND45,000 a bowl of chicken pho, Huong Binh still offers the same quality which has acquired its prestige.

In his book, Minh Huong warned chicken pho-lovers that they should stay away from a restaurant where both beef and chicken pho was available. “It’s a waste of time and money,” he wrote. Even Huong Binh now has beef pho on its menu. Fortunately, it has two separate broth tanks—one is for beef, the other for chicken!

Compared with the “mainstream” pho (beef pho), the chicken pho business has declined in general. So have the row of restaurants on [former] Hien Vuong Street. However, at least a new address has emerged. In a wide alley on Ky Dong Street in District 3 lies a restaurant specializing in chicken pho and chicken min (noodles made from arrowroot). First-time visitors could be astonished at how busy the restaurant is, especially at lunch and dinner time. During peak hours, the restaurant accommodates more than 200 eaters.

Minh Huong, who himself must have been a pho-lover, also retold a story about a special chicken pho restaurant on Le Quy Don Street, also in District 3. The restaurant, which emerged in 1990 during the time Vietnam first embraced the market economy, had yet to have a name. Minh Huong labeled it “pho ga tam ly” (literally “psychology chicken pho”). Notably, this sidewalk eatery was run by the teaching staff of a university’s psychology faculty. As their life was hard in the grip of the subsidy economy, about 20 lecturers thought of doing business by setting a chicken pho eatery. The colleagues who didn’t have classes during the day took turn to run the “restaurant” which helped them successfully maintain their teaching career.

Saigon has witnessed several variations springing up from the traditional beef pho—phở cá (fish pho), phở đà điểu (ostrich pho) and phở nghêu (oyster pho), to name just a few. However, most of them have failed the acid test of diners’ taste. The only survival so far is chicken pho. So, taste it if you have time. It may be the last chance!

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