Soliciting Flavours

Musings (more like rambling thoughts) of a Cardiff based lawyer obsessed with food and wine

Pho-cking awesome? Pho at Pho Vietnamese Street Food and Hanoi 1991,

For years there has been an obvious and gaping hole in terms of what is on offer in Cardiff on the food front.

That hole was the total and utter lack of any Vietnamese restaurants in Cardiff or surrounds (let alone a good one). It is, I think, scandalous that for the majority of the eons I have resided in Cardiff there was not one single Vietnamese gaff in the city.

We had one many moons ago, in the form of Pho Bac, but it didn’t last long (despite good reviews) which was a shame. Its Korean replacement Kimchi is still going and is rather good (at least last time I went it was).

Vietnamese food is, in my view, right up amongst the great cuisines of the world. It operates on a basis of maximising flavour with the prodigious use of fragrant herbs and the flavour bombs that are nuac mam (fish sauce) and mam ruoc (shrimp paste) to create an alternative to fiery spicing.

It is a cuisine that is all about achieving balance (ying and yang) in terms of the primary taste combinations (salt, sweet, sour and bitter) all intended to meld harmoniously in a dish.

Any cuisine that can so effortlessly blend the best of the West with the exellence of the East, with the like of Banh Mi, is one that makes me sit up or, more to the point, chow down.

When I visited Vietnam (fascinating place, with an awesome food culture), I fell utterly in love with the food. It is a Country where the population pretty much obsess over eating and as such a place very much after my own heart (stomach).

Thoughts of pho for breakfast, banh mi or banh xeo for lunch and com tam (broken rice) for dinner (with some goi cuon) makes the mouth water (at least mine) uncontrollably.

Just like buses, you wait ages for one and then two come along.

One is an indie (Hanoi 1991) and the other is a chain (Pho Vietnamese Street Food) – cue the “boo hiss, the evil chain” and “yay, the brave, noble, indie”.

To be honest I don’t give a toss whether a place is a chain or an indie as long as the food is good and the people running it know what they are doing (i.e the bean counters haven’t taken over, admittedly much more likely with a chain).

If you make a success of your business and maintain quality then more power to your elbow I say.

Both these places offer pho (pronounced “Fuh” as in “duh” – hence the slightly risque post title), a staple (usually eaten for breakfast) in Vietnam, which is a steaming bowl of flavour packed broth – with noodles to slurp and herbs a plenty.

Thinly cut slices of beef (often raw – with the heat of the broth poured on the only cooking they get) traditionally make up the meat element, but it is a very versatile dish so pretty much anything goes (chicken and tofu being the other common protein elements).

When done properly pho is an absolute, favour packed, joy – true comfort food in the vein of Jewish penicillin (chicken soup). When it isn’t done properly it is watery, bland fare, with the appeal of dish water (pho -cking awful).

So what is the pho like at these two places?

Hanoi 1991

This place started off as a coffee shop, with the food offering limited to cake and bánh mì/my. I reviewed it when it opened and loved their weird yet wonderful egg coffee (akin to a zabionie sat atop an espresso).

Recently they have expanded their offering to include pho on selected days.

As I was in the vicinity (picking up stuff from Wally’s) on a Wednesday I decided to give it a go.

At £8.85, the phở gà (chicken pho – only that and tofu were the pho options on that day) here is towards the top end of my lunch budget, but it was a very generous bowl packed with both chicken breast and the tastier thigh meat (both beautifully tender)

The broth itself looked quite innocious and, unsurprisingly, was lighter than the broth you get with the beef based phos I have had previously. It, however, certainly packed a punch flavour wise.

A rich chicken stock, made no doubt from a carcass/es left to simmer for hours, possibly even days and then clarified, was the base. Consumé like, I reckon many a top chef would be proud of such a broth.

On top of the lovely chicken flavour was a nice hit of fragant herbs, particularly lemongrass and Thai basil. A further citrus hit was provided by a judicious thwack of lime.

Hidden in the depth were a generous portion of flat rice noodles which required a good old slurp to get from the bowl into the gob. Nice texture to these (not too slimy).

Very satisfying, slurping noodles, have to say

Whilst there was a bit of chilli heat to the broth, I opted to add a generous slug of sriracha. Not really needed, but it added just that little extra bite.

All in all a very accomplished bowl of pho, which I polished off with gusto.

The only thing missing was an extra shot of sourness from some vinegar on the side, which I personally find very agreeable in a pho.

Details

The details

Address: 28 -30 Royal Arcade, Cardiff, CF10 1AE

Tel: 02920 229441

Website: Click here

Instagram: @Hanoi.1991

Twitter: Don’t seem to be on it.

Opening hours: Mon – Sat: 09.00 – 18.30 and Sun: 10.30 – 17.00

Pho Vietnamese Street Food

Pho is a chain, with (at last count) 29 branches (I have been to ones in Brum and London in the past), but (much like its neighbour in Cardiff, Honest Burger) it isn’t one of the corporate behemoths/VC owned abominations. It has organically grown from small beginnings (I suppose they all generally do, even the ghastly Starbucks) and the passion of two Londoners for Vietnamese food.

Keen to try the place, holidays and work commitments precluded an earlier visit.

I did get an invite for an freebie but, if I am honest, I don’t really feel that comfortable doing a review based solely on a freebie.

I prefer to base my rambling blogged thoughts on at least one visit as a paying customer, as I am never convinced I can be as objective as some when I don’t have to open my wallet (my default position when given something is to be grateful even if I am not entirely keen i.e. when you get that shit secret Santa gift – actually I refuse to do secret Santa in work precisely for that reason and because – mainly – I am a miserable git).

On this basis I thanked them and said I would be in as a paying customer in due course. I was too busy in any event to go the week in question.

Lunch, after work pressures had subsided somewhat (they never go away – nature of the beast when a commercial lawyer), with an ex work collegue who recently escaped under the wire providing the perfect excuse to try the place (which has already been the subject of many a good write up from the Cardiff blogging community)

Despite being tempted by a number of the starters (particularly the beef wrapped in betal nut leaves) and the various broken rice and noodle dishes, the mid week lunch timing precluded a full blow out and I was there for only one thing and that was the pho. When a place is named after a particular food item, it would seem odd to me (at least on a first visit) to ignore said namesake dish.

For comparison purposes, I again went for the phở gà (£9.25).

This came with a plate of herbs

containing coriander, Thai basil and ngo gai (the long leaf one, I think), fresh chillies, lime and bean sprouts, which can be added (in toto – as I did – or selectively to suite your own tastes) to your pho.

You can further pimp up your pho through the addition of sriracha, fish sauce, chilli and garlic paste and/chilli and garlic vinegar.

I added some sriracha and the garlic and chilli vinegar, along with the full compliment of the side plate of herbs etc.

Having eaten pho in Vietnam I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of this one.

The broth, which was more cloudy and darker (surprisingly so for chicken) than the Hanoi 1991 pho, had a decent flavour and the bountiful noodles providing filling carbs and a satisfactory slurp.

The herbs etc. added nicely in terms of layering of flavour.

The only real disappointment was the shredded chicken breast, which was a little lacking in flavour and just a tad on the chewy side.

Whilst not cheap (for lunch at least), I thought (based on a big portion size and pleasing flavour) that £9.25 was actually fair value.

I was pretty full after eating it all and didn’t need dinner in the evening that day.

All in all a pretty decent effort and despite their rapid expansion they seem to have admirably maintained quality levels. Kudos to any operation that can do that across 29 branches

Details

Address: Unit b, 5-10 Church Street, Cardiff, CF10 IBG.

Tel: 029 2269 0020

Website: click here.

Twitter: @phoRestaurant

Instagram: @phorestaurant

Opening hours: Mon – Sat 11.00 – 22.00, Sun: 11.00 – 20.00.

Take out is also available.

The verdict

Based on my experiences of pho in Vietnam, these two places both offer pretty decent pho.

If I was put on the spot and asked which I preferred I would go for the Hanoi 1991 one. It had a bit more depth of chicken flavour to the broth – odd that with the Hanoi 1991 (on the left, as you look at the screen, below) being much the lighter in colour of the two.

I also preferred the use of thigh meat (much more flavour) in the Hanoi 1991 pho as oppose to the (slightly tough) shredded chicken breast in the Pho one. Finally the Hanoi 1991 version is cheaper (albeit by only 40p for the phở gà).

Having said all that, Pho offers the option of a night out venue (Hanoi 1991 on the other hand shuts at 18.30, plus they don’t offer pho everyday) and it has a greater variety of stuff (covering the full gamut of what Vietnamese cuisine has to offer) to choose from than Hanoi 1991.

I also liked the fact you can pimp up your pho in Pho to suit your tastes (at Hanoi 1991 you can only have the optio of adding sriracha and I personally like to add vinegar sourness to my pho).

Would I go back to one or both? Both – Hanoi for lunch and Pho for dinner.

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