Food guru and critic AA Gill once described Vietnamese food as “the sole reason for crossing the river”. Now for many, this would have sold it to them; for TNT however, it was a curious heads up, as Vietnamese food had never been a cuisine we had delved into.
Frankly speaking, the first thing that pops into the mind about Vietnam is Robin Williams and Forrest Whitaker’s 1987 American war-comedy film ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’. Those of you clueless, or too young to know it, can peruse over your Netflix for the humble pleasures of Williams’ comedy, set in the Southeast Asian country.
On a wet and cold Tuesday afternoon, we hopped over the puddly cobbled Cathedral Street leading up to the glitzy revamped £30m Corn Exchange – Manchester’s new ‘premier food and drink haven’. The destination: Pho – pronounced ‘fuh’ – a Vietnamese street food restaurant nestled in the heart of the city; vertically opposite the Manchester Cathedral in The Hanging Ditch.
As part of a chain, Pho is a family-run business first opened in June 2005 by Stephen and Juliette Wall in Clerkenwell; making it London’s first Vietnamese street food restaurant. After travelling to Vietnam, the couple fell in love with the food and decided to open Pho; serving Vietnam’s national dish, fuh, amongst other dishes and drinks.
Having opened its Manchester branch in August, Pho effortlessly incorporates authenticity and contemporary simplicity into both its food and decor, that it’s easy to see it quickly becoming the go-to place for Mancunian couples, colleagues and families alike.
Set across three floors with a mix of cosy booth seating, large wooden tables and benches for a quick bite, or external tables within the amazing central atrium, the restaurant interweaves all meal times into a straightforward and seamless menu.
General Branch Manager, Annie Smyth’s beaming welcome mirrored the luminous light flooding into our table from the glass-domed foyer. “So we are feeding you today”, Annie exclaimed; before filling our table with dishes whose wafts were an aromatic synonym for heaven.
When it comes to fresh juices, Pho does not take any shortcuts. First there was the Kale, apple, pineapple and lime; then the coconut, pineapple and apple. Healthy, healthy, healthy is what each sipped gulp affirmed, and rightly so.
Beginning with the Goi Cuon – chicken summer rolls which are rice paper rolls with herbs and pickle, served with a peanut sauce. No way to describe these other than that they are a super healthy and light starter. The other starter was the Cha Gio – crispy pork spring rolls served with lettuce and herbs to wrap & dip. Chewy, crispy, flavoursome, these were “100 per cent the best pork spring rolls I’ve ever tasted”, one of TNT’s journalists exclaimed between her appreciative hmmm’s. The herbs are finely ground in this one and just as you swallow a masticated morsel of it, they leave a fiery kick in the throat.
The Prawn Ca’ri – a rich, fragrant coconut-milk-based Vietnamese curry with prawns, vegetables and mushrooms, topped with nuts and served with broken rice – was a winner. Creamy with a good consistency, the prawns are lightly dabbled in the gingery peanut-y sauce and aren’t chewy or taste prawn-y either.
If on a low calorie diet, try the Goi Ga, which is the shredded chicken salad with Asian herbs, peppers and a chilli ginger dressing. Without the dressing, this is quite dry and laboriously fibrous but once drizzled with the dressing, it’s a joy – injects an instantaneous healthy feeling.
It wouldn’t be a justified visit to Pho, if we didn’t try the Pho soup itself. Served with varying ingredients on the menu, ours was the tender beef brisket slow cooked in Pho’s broth. Light and fiery, this warm rice noodle soup is the perfect winter dish served with a side of fresh herbs to add as you please. Be sure to ask for one of Pho’s bibs however, as this immaculately made broth is a tad fiddly. In any case, eating this is an intense but fleeting experience – like wild-flower picking.
Although there was a fair amount to go through, Pho’s food is light; credit to most of its menu being totally gluten-free. So if AA Gill’s summation of Vietnamese cuisine didn’t do it for you, this surely ought to.
For dessert, we had the Chuoi Chien – banana fritter with green tea ice cream; and Banh La Dua – pandan pancake with roasted desiccated coconut, served with ice cream honey & ginger ice cream. All accompanied by Vietnamese coffee, both dishes were a light and healthy end to the day’s dining. Usually fritters have a cinnamon and sugary taste but Pho’s tastes savoury and lacks the greasy texture far too common with the dish. The pandan pancake will not be explained as it’s inexplicable. You have to try it.
Pho is a truly authentic experience of Vietnamese cooking, you can’t beat it. As if that isn’t enough, the restaurant is introducing the ‘Emergency Hangover Cure’ – for when partying has taken its toll on you. It’s healthy and packed full of vitamins which will get you back on track.
More than the food, Pho has sold Vietnam to us. With both Annie and our waitress Sam Holt having travelled to the country, you can rest assured the staff is as well-versed and invested in the service they offer.