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Pho Quest: New Bowls from Saigon Mama and LA Pho

One man's never ending quest for the best Pho -- or at least a consumable Pho -- in Shanghai.
2015-11-27 13:35:30
One man's never ending quest for the best Pho -- or at least a consumable Pho -- in Shanghai.

Hi folks, it’s been a while since my last Pho Quest. I’ve been on a Banh-mi quest, and quite a few Pho places have opened since my last excursion. Two of these spots stand out in this city's sea of disappointing Pho: Saigon Mama in Jing'an, and LA Pho out in the Gubei boondocks, which might have the best bowl in town.

Saigon Mama


First up, Saigon Mama, in a weird location at the entrance of a carpark directly under Element Fresh at the Shanghai Centre -- a space that works surprisingly well. The Pho recipe comes from the mothers of the proprietors, who are cousins. Both the mamas hail from Saigon, hence the name. One of them still runs a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco.

The menu here is simple with Pho and the expected appetizers like fresh spring rolls (salad roll), shrimp chips and egg rolls. Confusingly, there are no Vietnamese names for any of the dishes, and trying to decipher someone else’s English description of Vietnamese food is difficult. I'd never heard of a "Vietnamese Seafood Noodle" (68rmb), but later realized this is their version of Bun Rieu, a traditional crabmeat base noodle soup, almost like a Vietnamese marinara. That's one of my all-time favorite noodle soups, so I'll go back to check that out.

Let’s get down to business. They do four types of Pho, including the the Pho Combo for 68rmb (brisket, shank, tendons and beef balls) and the Pho Classic for 58rmb (raw beef, brisket and beef balls). Now, where I come from, a Classic is just raw beef. A Pho with more than two types of meat cuts would be a Combo, and Combos usually have raw beef. Then there's the Chicken Pho and a Veggie Pho.

I've never really understood "Veggie Pho." What is that? Without a meaty broth it’s not a Pho. Might as well call it what it is -- "a vegetable noodle soup."

Enough about the technicalities, how was the Pho? Nowhere have I seen such a beautiful bowl of Pho, almost like ramen in its arrangement of sliced meats. The bowl is rather wide and shallow, and that’s my first gripe. An ideal bowl for Pho should be deep, to keep in the heat so that you can have a consistently warm bowl throughout.

The all-important broth had all the intricate layers of flavor, and either very little or no MSG. Had this broth not been a little heavy on the pepper, it would have approached perfection. Some ideas for improvement: the tendons were still a little undercooked for my liking; the slices of raw beef are like the pre-sliced hotpot beef, which I've never liked; raw beef should be so finely sliced that it almost falls apart. The slice brisket is a touch thin and finally, the noodle is not the silky smooth fresh noodle it should be.

What I do like -- other than the broth -- is their generosity with the bean sprouts and basil, and the beef balls, which had the right texture and taste, but were rather small. All in all I give this Pho a 3.8/5. To finish off the meal, their Vietnamese Coffee was close to perfect. Stay tuned for their Banh-mi, which, judging from the homemade Pate, looks promising to this Mr.V...

LA Pho


I've never been to LA, much less tasted any Pho there, so I was surprised to see that the menu and table decoration at LA Pho is almost the same as in the Vietnamese community in Australia. The smell of Pho fills the room. Anticipation.

Their menu is huge, with a full selection of Pho with various cuts and combinations of meats, which is exactly what's been missing in Shanghai. The Raw Beef alone has 15 variations. There is no vegetable noodle soup here. Prices range from 42-48, and surprisingly, the owner is from Taiwan.

Some dishes don't need to play dress up, and the the Pho here comes out looking and smelling just how it should, and paired with a liberal amount of bean sprouts, basil, and lime. The all-important broth was as close to authentic as I have experienced anywhere. The only problem is the MSG, which was quite obvious. As for the meats, the raw beef was beautifully sliced fresh beef that almost falls apart; the tendons and tripe were all good; the brisket was quite thin (though I prefer it thicker); the beef balls were a bit tasteless. But the noodle was a perfectly fresh, thinly cut rice noodle, and this makes such a difference. This is not one of those large bowls of mostly noodles and 2-3 slices of meat that you'll find elsewhere in town. They hook it up here, and this is the best Pho I've had in Shanghai. They get a rare 4.5 out of 5, minus a few points points for the MSG.

Until the next Quest…

[Ed: Special shout out to Patrick Mai for telling us about these spots.]