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The Top Five: Pho

We're officially in the grip of pho as full-fledged trend. A couple of days ago, as my ayi was watering the mint and basil starters in my new suburban greenhouse (I'm cashing in, too), she paused an...
2009-08-19 16:08:00

We're officially in the grip of pho as full-fledged trend. A couple of days ago, as my ayi was watering the mint and basil starters in my new suburban greenhouse (I'm cashing in, too), she paused and asked me in a serious tone: "Do you find it's better to use whole star anise and add them at the beginning of the stock-making process, or to toast them lightly, grind them in a coffee grinder, and add the powder at the last moment?"

I was down around Yuyuan Garden yesterday, wandering the tourist stalls with a couple of Harvard MBA-types doing due diligence on a Minhang tripe processor, when we stopped for some soup dumplings at Nanxiang. Lo and behold, the iconic Shanghainese xiaolongbao shop of such storied history and carefully guarded tradition has added a new flavor: pholongbao.

And then this morning, as I jumped in the cab on the way to work, I saw that chewy beef balls were indeed falling from the sky. My driver's filthy tea jar was filled with pho. A couple of pieces of tripe had sunk to the bottom. He was trying to cut a lime in half on a ragged edge of his plastic cubicle.

How'd this start? I don't know. Maybe it was me and my infectious quest. Maybe not. But it's a lot bigger than just me now. Time to re-assess.

Pho places fall in to two categories: specialists who focus on pho, with maybe a few accessories here or there, and restaurants for whom pho is just another item on a long menu. Pho is a diva, though, and, for me, best at places who do just that, as in Vietnam.

5. Mekong River

This restaurant was started by in 1843, back when Xujiahui had just become the Vietnamese Concession. They've been around for a while. It's a full restaurant, and as such, the pho suffers from lack of attention. There's no depth to the soup, only MSG, the essential condiments are so miserly you might as well BYO, and they're real stingy on the beef, which isn't particularly fresh or tender anyway. Their noodles are the saving grace, but you can't live on noodles alone. Plus, I don't like going to Xujiahui. Points for longevity and inexpensive prices, but not many.

4. Pho No.1 (Taikang Lu)

There's three links in Pho No. 1's chain but the Taikang Lu location is the strongest. When I'm in the mood to mash it up with tourists, unemployed deejays, and "creative people", it's not a bad choice. The soup is peppery and the price is right, but the noodles are too chewy, they fail on the condiments, and there's nothing to be said about the beef. Still, I go.

3. Pho Real

This is a new kid on the block and they're trying to keep all hush-hush. Not working very well, considering all of its 18 seats are mobbed for lunch. And, really, if you want to be a secret restaurant, a plate-glass exterior on Fumin Lu isn't the way to do it. Sorry, guys. The place looks like a gem though, with tastefully dramatic decor of upturned baskets on the ceilings, and a sky blue color scheme borrowed from Madame Mao's Dowry, directly across the street. (Ed note: What's up with the Top 40 hip-hop soundtrack? What is this? Bling?)

Although the name starts with pho, their limited soft opening menu only has one variety of the noodle soup on it, and two varieties of bun, cold rice vermicelli. The ratio at the moment is a little more Bun Real than Pho Real, plus it doubles as a wine bar after the kitchen closes at ten pm. Do I like this? Sure, but I'm really here for the soup, not the decor. The taste of the stock is there, though a bit overseasoned for my liking, but it's good -- not overpowering. And Pho Real is the first place that brings copious amounts of mint, basil, bean sprouts and chopped chilies without having to ask. That's nice. Another plus: the beef balls. Great bounce, good taste. Drawbacks are the lack of options and the meat being fully cooked in the soup once it arrives at the table. The first one will be probably be sorted as they expand from a limited menu. Also, there's only one size, and it's kind of small. Good for the ladies, though.

At 38rmb for a lunch set, with spring rolls, there's plenty of value, however. Pho Real is promising.

2. Pho Sizzling

Pho Sizzling comes the closest to the style of pho shop I've been looking for. Although it does have other noodle and rice dishes, it's pretty similar to the pho places in Sydney. I've been before, but to recap, the soup stock is okay, missing some body and complexity, but the condiments all showed up to the party and the noodles aren't too chewy, as I find them to be in many other places. The beef still leaves a bit to be desired, but China's not really cowboy country, is it? Good value, too.

1. Nam 75

Best pho in Shanghai? This place. I like how consistently I can get a good bowl of pho at Nam 75. The flavor and body are both there in the soup stock, the condiments are sprightly and plentiful, the beef is fresh (still, I want more.... ), they're the only one to use fresh noodles, and it gets even better when you ask for delivery, as they ramp up the condiments. Seems to be a little thank-you for thinking of them and ordering from them, even when you've become enmeshed in your couch. It's a bit more expensive than the others, but it's the worth the price and it's not going to break the bank. Other dishes? They're not the pho.