Pho is pho is pho – right?
WRONG. This Vietnamese rice noodle soup is a dish which many people hold dear to their hearts. Everyone has their favourite haunts and a discussion about where in Melbourne to find the best pho in Melbourne leads to much passionate and parochial debate.
My Vietnamese friends always maintain that their mum’s pho is the best and can’t be replicated – but if they deign to go out for pho then the most authentic is to be found in Sunshine.
The progressive dinner started with a Vietnamese ice coffee or bubble tea from Sao Café (308 Hampshire Road). I chose watermelon and scoffed at RM choosing taro – but in fact the maligned yam tasted much better than the fake sweetness of the watermelon flavouring.
From there the group split to try different restaurants. We were directed a few doors up to Phở Hien Saigon (3/284 Hampshire Road). The owner explained that his broth was an adaptation of a recipe of his family and had been cooked for 12+ hours and left overnight to infuse before being served the next day. Every day new stock is made – the stock is not reheated over and over again. We were given a small bowl of either beef or chicken pho to sample, along with a huge plate of aromatic herbs and bean sprouts.
While I haven’t tried every single pho in Melbourne my phở journey so far draws me to declare Phở Hien Saigon is a contender for the best phở I’ve had in Melbourne. The broth was light but flavoursome, not murky and muddy in flavour or appearance, and I had to stop myself from drinking too much of the soup knowing that there would be more phở to come. I liked the bright, spacious restaurant too (with ubiquitous flat screen TVs in the corners) and the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurial young owner who has recently expanded his restaurant and wants to keep growing.
The next stop was Nhi Nuong/ Two Sisters (255 Hampshire Road). To welcome the Sunshine Pho Fever guests the owners had prepared a wildly intricate fruit display and had live singers – the two sisters themselves – entertain us.
They were so excited to welcome us into their restaurant, even festooning our central table with balloons, that it was all quite humbling. As for the phở, the broth was rather oily and was too strong in anise flavour for my taste. Still good, but not as good as Phở Hien Saigon.
Our final stop was Thuan An (253 Hampshire Road) where we were not served phở (thank God – apparently last year people were given a third bowl!) but instead a small taste of their signature coconut prawns and a freshly squeezed pennyworth, coconut and mung bean juice. I’ve never tasted pennyworth before and it was refreshing and sweet – but you have to make sure the restaurant squeezes the leaves fresh as many places will use bottled juice. The coconut prawn was crunchy and juicy and certainly a dish I’d return to try in full, though I hope they don’t normally serve it was strawberry sauce!
As we stumbled out back onto Hampshire Road I vowed I will never again say that too much pho is never enough (I quote I made when I ate it every day in my 3 weeks in Vietnam). Two small bowls of pho in one night is too much! Having said that, Sunshine Pho Fever was a bargain for $45 per person and was a great introduction to the great Vietnamese food that can be found in Sunshine.