I am a poor excuse for a foodie. I haven’t been to Quay, I haven’t been to Tetsuyas. I haven’t even been to a Bill’s. I am yet to visit a single food truck. I’ve only had 2 things on this list. And until very recently, I had never been to Pho An – widely regarded as THE best Pho in Sydney.
I’ve been meaning to go for YEARS but I always put Bankstown in the “tooo fffaaaaaaarrrrrrrr” box, along with Cabramatta, Fairfield and Bondi. Finally, thanks to the good reason of giving some mates who live in Yagoona a lift home, we made the trek out to my Pho destiny.
Despite being too lazy to venture outside of the north-western suburbs and inner city, I really do LOVE pho. Or as my people like to call it, Wollamguksoo. I even love the dodgy Korean-made pho – heck, I was brought up on the stuff! Dad’s worked in Strathfield for a while and the biggest highlight of visiting his office was eating Pho for lunch at Saigon Bowl.
I have no idea where Korean people’s fondness for Vietnamese food came from. Definitely not from Korea – when I was there in 2007 Pho was one of the foods I missed from home, so we managed to track down a “rice noodle” restaurant. It was ridiculously bad, as bland as noodles in hot water.
Maybe it was the shared experience of being struggling migrants in the ghetto suburbs of Sydney. Maybe it was the only thing that suited our tastebuds when we first got here and Korean groceries were hard to come by. Who knows, but Wollamguksoo is now so loved by us that most vietnamese restaurants will have “월남국수” written on its windows so we know that we’re welcome.
As with most things, my standards for Pho aren’t very high. I’ll enjoy it pretty much anywhere I go (except Korea) so I was a little “How much better can it be?” about Pho An. But most people responded to that with harsh, judging eyes and some words along the lines of “You haven’t really had pho until you’ve had Pho An”
So I was excited. On the day, I was psyching myself up for a life-altering moment. Like “These are the last moments of your life as someone who has never had Pho An. From tonight, things will never be the same again.”
When we arrived, I was really surprised at how nice it was. I had heard that it had been renovated since becoming so famous, but I didn’t expect to be dining at the classiest joint in Bankstown! Not even a touch of the dirtiness or dinginess you’d expect from a visit to the outskirts of Sydney for authentic asian food. And the place runs like a well-oiled machine – the staff are equipped with PDAs and expect to take your order as soon as you walk in. We embarrassed ourselves by asking for menus and were shocked to find that they ONLY SELL PHO (and a few drinks/sweets). No spring rolls, no vermicelli, no crispy chicken and tomato rice, just 15 varieties of Pho. You gotta have some extreme confidence in your Pho if that’s the only thing on the menu.
The service is faster than a Macca’s drive through – I excused myself to go to the bathroom as soon as we ordered, and by the time I was back at our table, 4 bowls of steaming hot soup noodle had magically materialised.
Matt’s Beef Brisket Pho – I took a photo of my Pho Tai but lost it when I restored my iPhone the next day without backing it up… 😦
So I slowly took a spoonful of broth to my mouth, ready to be mind-blown with liquid-beef flavour bomb…. and then – nothing. Disappointment. Tasted like ordinary Pho – with a touch a bitterness in the broth? Flavour was light and clean, not the richness and complexity I expected from broth that was prepared in the authentic, traditional style and had been simmering for hours and hours. Is that just a wrong expectation – is Pho broth mean to be really pure and simple? And the raw beef was just in this mushy clump in the middle.
It’s my fault too – not only did I have stupidly high expectations, I also got too excited and dunked my mint garnish into the soup before my first sip. That was probably what caused the soup to taste bitter. And then, to counter act the bitterness, I effectively ruined the broth by dousing it in chilli sauce and fresh chillies.
Matt, on the other hand, LOVED it and he doesn’t even like Pho. He loved it so much he went back the next day for lunch.
Thankfully, dessert saved the day – as it often does! We ordered the three-colour drink and I didn’t expect to like it at all because when it comes to Asian desserts (Meet Fresh, Easyway, etc) I’m a bit of a hater.
But I loved this! Crunchy shaved ice with mildly sweet coconut milk, fun stringy jelly and creamy yellow and red beans (NOT of the canned variety) – such a fun, refreshing summer dessert. Not quite the life-altering experience I had hoped, but left feeling happy that i discovered something new and delicious.
After being disappointed by Pho An, I was determined to try its competitors and discover the TRUE (or at least MY) best Pho in Sydney. So a few weeks after, I arranged to meet a friend at the new Gia Hoi in Eastwood. Her favourite Pho is at the Gia Hoi in Canley Heights, so I was pretty psyched when I heard it had opened an Eastwood branch.
In true Vietnamese style, we met at 10am for breakfast Pho. When the “Closed” sign was still hanging at 10:07am, I got impatient and actually called the restaurant from right outside to be like “Uh, you’re meant to be open, can you please let us in?!” To my defence, it was really cold and rainy outside.
I know this is meant to be a Pho adventure, but looking at the menu I was tempted by the big, appetising photos of “Bún bò Huế” – Gia Hoi’s specialty. I ordered Bun Bo Hue Dac Biet “Special Pork & Beef with Rice Vermicelli Soup (Hot & Spicy)”. I’m usually dubious about anything asian with the word “Special” in the name because “special” generally equals “offal” – but after the mushy beef clump at Pho An, I wanted something a bit more exciting than Pho Tai.
GOOD CHOICE HEATHER.
This was so good! Generous slices of fatty pork, cooked beef, and sausage (I discarded the blood jelly…), slippery rice noodle tubes and tangy, spicy broth. Could have been spicier, but that’s just the Korean in me talking.
I took a spoonful of my friends Pho broth and IMO, better than Pho An.
Finished off brekkie with my new favourite three colour drink.
Next stop: Back to Pho An. Why would I go back? Not for its lacklustre beef pho, but for this:
YES THOSE ARE HARD BOILED EGG YOLKS! Pho An’s chicken and egg pho. Matt had this on his second visit and sent me a photo at work – I almost squealed. So many of my favourite things in a bowl. Haven’t tried it yet, but quite confident this may become my new favourite food.