Where can you get the best pho bo in Hanoi? As the old Vietnamese saying goes, ask nine people and you’ll get 10 different opinions. Courtesy of our four judges we went in search of a definitive answer. Words by Huyen Tran. Photos by Trung Del, Julie Vola and Nick Ross
Like pizza in Italy, pho is synonymous with Vietnam, but in particular with Hanoi. The country’s best-known dish is found everywhere — from humble streetside joints to classy hotels. While the recipe varies from place to place, and is often shrouded in secrecy, the dish still maintains a distinctive taste. With so many opinions out there on which eatery offers up the best pho bo in Hanoi — the dish’s spiritual home — we decided to find out for ourselves.
To do this we sent out four eager judges to 10 well-known pho joints in the centre of the city. Sharing steaming bowls of pho tai chin — noodle soup with sliced well-done steak and rare steak — our courageous pho tasters braved late spring humidity, Old Quarter traffic and beef sweats to ravage their way through more red meat than is healthy. Here is their verdict.
Shahar (Shay) Lubin
Chef-owner of Daluva, one of the capital’s most innovative restaurants, Shay has a love affair with American, Middle Eastern and Vietnamese cuisine, and is particularly obsessed with fish sauce, which he uses as lavishly as possible. A frequenter of Hanoi’s alleyways, when it comes to street food, Shay likes it local.
Tu Nguyen (Chef Tu)
Executive chef at Don’s Tay Ho, Tu is one of Hanoi’s best-known and equally well-revered western-trained, Vietnamese chefs. Known as much for his cuisine as he is for his smile and hospitality, Tu’s repertoire of dishes extends from French, Italian and North American all the way through to pan-Asian.
Street food writer at Word, Huyen is passionate about discovering the stories behind the local people who create the cuisine of Hanoi. A freelancer and marketer, Huyen has been writing the Street Snacker column for Word since 2012.
Area manager at Word, prior to entering the world of magazines, Giang worked in F&B, both at the Press Club and later at Softwater. Boasting a wide-ranging knowledge of Vietnam, the Hue-born mother of two has assisted many generations of Word writers in discovering the country since 2010.
We used the following criteria to assess the pho. Each category was marked out of 10.
— Overall taste
Pho Tu Lun
23 Hai Ba Trung, Hoan Kiem
A traditional pho joint popular in the period just after the Doi Moi reforms, the original owner, Tu Lun, was famous for his signature preparation of pho. After he passed away, two of his sons took over and have divided the labour into two shifts: morning and afternoon. Their family formula offers up a broth with a strong hint of fish sauce, yet the taste remains rich thanks to the braised beef and bones. A bowl of pho here has a fragrant aroma thanks to the light scent of the noodles and the thin-sliced green onion. The homemade chilli sauce is a plus.
For diners who prefer their broth salty, Pho Tu Lun is a great choice. The meat is tender, the quay breadsticks are crispy and the eatery is quiet, clean and friendly.
Pho Ly Quoc Su
10 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem
VND45,000 to VND70,000
Another pho restaurant in the top three, the fresh look and feel of the pho here makes a bowl of the good stuff perfect for the morning diner. The broth is clear, clean and tasty, although a bit salty for some. But the stock still maintains that true taste of beef bone braised for long hours. “The broth tastes really different,” said Tu. “Maybe it’s due to this family’s secret way of selecting the right seasoning.” The beef here is another plus point — tender and perfectly sliced.
The eatery is clean and compared to other joints, more upmarket. But the ‘bring ‘em in, throw ‘em’ out food chain mentality can be off-putting, especially in such a cramped space. With customers waiting for unoccupied tables, diners get the impression they’re expected to eat up and leave quickly. While the noodles were a bit bland, the quay was the best we tasted. Price-wise this joint is a bit expensive, but acceptable for its quality.
Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan
49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
VND40,000 / VND50,000
Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan is renowned for offering subtle flavours, and a clear broth, yet it is equally notorious for what some describe as its ‘arrogant’ service. Here you have to stand in line and pay in advance to get your bowl of soup. Thus the nickname — Pho Xep Hang or ’Line-Up Pho’.
Known for serving a classic version of Hanoi-style pho, the broth is light and slightly sweet, while the noodles are thin and cooked just right. The meat is fresh — the perfectly thin and tender sliced pieces of beef are rich in taste — while the bowl of goodness is rounded off by fresh green onion on top. Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan is one of the few joints that do not provide fresh lime as a condiment. Say some diners, “They think the lime spoils the broth.” Here eaters have to make do with garlic vinegar and chilli.
Our judges rated Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan as one of the top three pho bo places in Hanoi. The beef-sweetened broth and lack of MSG make this place a winner. Price-wise it’s reasonable too, and on a hygiene front, we gave pho xep hang an 8. The only downer? The bread sticks or banh quay weren’t crispy.
25 Hang Giay, Hoan Kiem
Another family-owned business, despite serving up pho for 40 years, the broth is bland, with a strong taste of ginger and onion. There is also a distinct hint of MSG. The noodles are soft and taste good. However, the meat only received 5 points out of 10 as it is badly cut; some pieces are chewy and difficult to eat. Hygiene-wise, Pho Vui also performs badly, and the condiments don’t look fresh.
In terms of taste, mediocre. As Shay put it: “A hole in the wall.”
23 Hang Muoi, Hoan Kiem
VND35,000 to VND60,000
The only broth we encountered with a strong whiff of cinnamon and star anise. Yet, the taste also has an annoying trace of MSG. The meat is fragrant and tasty, the noodles are quite good, but the quay is not crispy. The condiments are fresh and both the service and dining area are fairly clean. As far as overall taste, a 7 out of 10.
This spacious restaurant creates a relaxed feeling for diners. However, Pho Cuong relies on a quick turnover of customers, creating pressure on the customer to eat and leave. Reasonably priced.
24 Trung Yen, Dinh Liet, Hoan Kiem
VND35,000 to VND80,000
Located in a tight alley off Dinh Liet, this eatery is comprised of two dining spaces, both opposite each other. Pho Suong stands out as the only joint using a meat slicing machine however, they fall down on the broth, which has a tough taste and a decided hint of MSG — we all marked it around 5 or 6 out of 10. In contrast, the meat is excellent. The brisket is rich and moist, and there are a range of other beef options, too. If you go for the ‘special’ bowl at VND80,000 you get the full kit and caboodle. Another nice addition are the spring onion bulbs placed on top of the pho.
The taste here is mediocre when compared to its price and the eatery isn’t too clean. Because of the alley location, diners with bikes will have trouble parking during rush hour.
Pho Bo Cu Chieu
48 Hang Dong, Hoan Kiem
VND45,000 to VND60,000
Another pho bo joint serving up a broth with a strong emphasis on fish sauce. But instead of tasting salty, the broth has a clean flavour and a fragrant aroma. The meat is rich and tender, and there is a nice selection of fatty meat for those who are so inclined. Like Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan, this place doesn’t offer up lime as a condiment. Said Shay, “When they choose not to offer lime on the table, it means they are confident that their broth is already great and it does not need any lime to bolster the taste. It’s kind of a statement.”
The joint is small yet not always crowded, so it never feels cramped here. The condiments are a bit limited and the quay is not crispy, although the price is acceptable and the service is friendly.
Pho Bung Hang Trong
On the sidewalk of Hang Trong, near the crossing with Hang Bong
The word bung means to carry something with your hands. Add the word pho in front of this and you get pho bung, or true streetside pho. Open daily from 4pm to 8pm, here diners sit on low stools and wait for their servings, then self-serve without having a table to put their bowls on. The broth is especially clear and light, like consommé. However, the meat selection is limited. Bunches of minced green onion and coriander are put on top of the bowl, spicing up the broth. The noodles are quite good and the quay was crispy. 7 points for overall taste.
Pho bung is seen more as a snack — and at only VND25,000 for a small bowl, you can understand why. The eating-on-the-street experience makes this place super ‘authentic’. To me, it’s places like this that maintain the original spirit of street food.
Pho Thin Bo Ho
61 Dinh Tien Hoang, Hoan Kiem
VND50,000 to VND70,000
There’s a place with the same name on Lo Duc, which makes it confusing to some diners, since the pho at this joint is traditional pho bo — not the sautéed version you get in Lo Duc. A food stand against the wall of a small alley, the broth here is clear, light and slightly sweet thanks to braised bones and good seasoning. The steak is tender and rich in taste. The noodles are also as good as the meat. Onion and herbs spice up the broth. The condiments are good — delicious garlic vinegar and chilli sauce. 8 out of 10 for overall taste.
For some diners, the joint feels quite clean compared to its alley context. Yet, some feel that hygiene here may be an issue. “Its context creates an old and traditional feeling, relaxed and chilled,” said Shay. To me, it was over-priced.
Pho Thin Lo Duc
13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung
Okay, we know. This is not pho bo chin. But Pho Thin is so good that we decided we couldn’t leave it out. The difference here is the preparation of the meat. Stir-fried with garlic it is added to the noodles before the broth is poured over the top. This seemingly minor difference transforms the flavour, creating a different dining experience. The shreds of meat are aromatic and blended with fresh green onions. The stir-fried beef makes the broth rich and sweet, yet a bit fattier. Condiments here include fresh lime, pickled chillies and home-made chilli sauce. The quay tastes amazing after being soaked up in the rich broth. For such a big bowl of meat, the prices here are very reasonable.
The overall taste of the pho bo at Pho Thin is so good that it can more than hold its own against its more traditional competitors elsewhere.
The Final Scores
The scores below are averaged and marked out of 10
1) Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan — 8.6
2) Pho Ly Quoc Su — 8.5
3) Pho Thin Lo Duc — 8.4
4) Pho Tu Lun — 8.1
5) Pho Bo Cu Chieu — 8.1
6) Pho Cuong — 8.0
7) Pho Thin Bo Ho— 8.0
8) Pho bung Hang Trong — 7.4
9) Pho Vui — 6.8
10) Pho Suong — 6.7
Hazel Lee Thursday, 18 June 2015 18:00 Comment Link
I'm planning to visit Vietnam soon! And I'm planning to get down to business of eating tons of great Vietnamese food! I love how they make even vegetarian dishes really great. I have a friend who went there and said that the best Pho that he got was when he was riding this boat in a river market of sorts and the woman there sold him a bowl of freshly made noodles with a broth so heavenly. This is such a helpful guide when I visit Hanoi this summer. I know it rains a lot there during this time but I love a steaming bowl of Pho on a cold rainy day.
Quang Nhat Tuesday, 26 May 2015 15:26 Comment Link
Wow... I think it is a best food for me in Viet Nam. I want to get it now after read the post. I love Pho Bo
Katie Friday, 15 May 2015 23:05 Comment Link
Ahhh. I miss the pho in Hanoi so much.