Nov. 21, 2012 - Issue #892: Soup
The city’s hidden gems
Phở destinations for carnivores, vegetarians and vegans
Among many other behests, the varied cultures of eastern Asia have contributed an array of delicious soups to the ethnic smorgasbord available to diners-out in Edmonton. But as much as I enjoy Chinese hot and sour and wor wonton, fiery Thai tom yum, and Korea's brimming table-top hot pots, there's none I love so well, nor seek out so regularly, as phở —that's Vietnamese beef noodle soup to me and you. (Incidentally, it's pronounced "fuh," not "foe." Feel free to insert your jokes about the Phở ở King restaurant on 118 Avenue here.)
I've spent the better part of a decade trying to parse the almost alchemical perfection of phở —to say nothing of its restorative qualities—but to little avail. It's simple enough to identify the components: seasoned beef broth, supple rice noodles, various cuts and grades of beef, crisp bean sprouts and a profusion of fresh herbs and side-seasonings that let you fine-tune the taste to your liking—but another thing entirely to describe how they work together in such glorious harmony, and yet another thing to nail down what makes one phở superior to another. But, indeed, not all phở is created equal.
The great thing is that Edmonton provides no shortage of opportunities to sample widely in pursuit of one's own ideal phở ở. In addition to the high concentration of authentic noodle houses in Chinatown, there are Vietnamese gems scattered across the city map, often nestled inconspicuously in the nooks and crannies of the city's strip malls—places like Phở & Bún in Forest Heights, Phở ở Hoan Pasteur and Nha Trang in Kingsway, and my favourite of them all, Thài Bính in Queen Mary Park.
There's a truism in the world of goods and services that you must pick which two of three parameters you want—good, fast or cheap—because getting all three is impossible. The family-run Thài Bính (11220 - 109 Ave, 780.944.9496) puts the lie to that adage by providing quick service of an affordable product that's way better than good. The one parameter they may fall short on is convenience—it's a cash-only operation that's only open 11 am – 4 pm on weekdays and isn't open on Wednesdays, which makes weekends the easiest time to visit.
But man, a little inconvenience is worth it. Their phở (or its spicier, porkier cousin, bún bò Huế) comes in two satisfying sizes ($7 regular, $8 large), with the expected selection of meats for inclusion your bowl, ranging from lean steak (which is dropped into the soup raw and cooked by the steaming broth) to fattier brisket ("the bacon of beef") to more suspect items like tripe and the enigmatic beef ball.
But, as I've suggested, meat is only part of the equation. Thài Bính's broth exemplifies the irreducible complexity of phở —the perfectly integrated aromas of cinnamon, star anise, lemongrass, charred onion and who knows what else. Each bowl contains ample skeins of chewy rice noodles for heft.
Then there's the liberal application of green onion and fresh cilantro to each serving, and the provision of heaps of sprouts, copious fresh basil and a lemon wedge on the side to add your discretion—the lack of such flourishes is a typical and tell-tale sign of sub-par phở. Livid red hot sauce (sriracha) and sweet, savoury hoisin are the finishing touches, also on an as-you-like-it basis.
By way of contrast, I decided to visit Veggie Garden (10582 - 100 St, 780.757.9060), Edmonton's one and only vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant, to see how their meatless variations on phở would fare. It also gave me a chance to indulge in their delicious and affordable green cilantro cakes ($3.99) and crispy & salty fried shiitake ($4.99), which is so tasty it should be made an honorary meat.
Hủu tíu chay ($6.99), their vegan phở variant, features fried tofu puffs, veggie "ham" and "chicken" slices, broccoli and carrots in a mushroom broth—oddly, no bean sprouts or basil were provided on the side. As with many vegetarian versions of traditionally meaty meals, it suffered slightly in comparison, but was tasty and filling enough on its own terms, even if the tofu puffs seemed a bit anomalous in soup. For people like my co-diner—a relatively recent convert to vegetarianism who sometimes pines for the fleshy pleasures of a vermicelli bowl—Veggie Garden is a guiltless godsend. Even better, they're open seven days a week and the tirelessly chipper owner is friendly and welcoming as can be.
While I'm more than happy to endorse Thài Bính and Veggie Garden as worthy recipients of your soup-buying dollar, I really want to encourage everyone to seek out the hidden Vietnamese gem in their neighbourhood and support the hell out of it. And then, of course, tell me all about it.
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