Self-conscious Vietnamese joint–but very good pho | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

PHO Bo Vien
PHO Bo Vien

Last weekend I thought I would do something insanely original, and beat the crowds by going to the beach at the end of February rather than when the floodgates opened in March. I imagined a small twin-propeller aircraft with just the family on board, a deserted resort, and the splendor of vast stretches of white sand to ourselves.


The first inkling that not all would go according to plan came when I checked the Internet upon arriving and saw pictures of my friends in snorkeling gear or bikinis, swigging beers with palm fronds in the background. It seemed that everyone had gone to the beach that weekend.


Or perhaps it was a bad sign that there was mobile Internet connection at the resort, in the first place. My ideal resort would have no Internet signal, no electricity, but with a genius chef and no other guests.


We were happy enough at Miniloc Island in El Nido, which is an oldie-but-goodie that I had visited around the time it first opened 19 years ago. It’s now eco-everything and beats the conservation drum loudly.


With beer at P290 a bottle, it also quells any inclinations toward heavy drinking.


There seems to be an upper ceiling when it comes to resort food, even at swanky Amanpulo. But because it was at a beach and I was off-duty and the family was on vacation, we ate well and plentifully—if rather monotonously—for four days.


It was an unpleasant jolt back to reality to come in for a dusk landing, stomach rumbling with hunger, and see nothing but McDonald’s and Jollibee signboards in the distance.


Restorative noodles


But just as one doesn’t look for caviar and French cheese on a remote island, most fish is not just dead but decomposing by the time it reaches this far inland. We wanted to return for a restorative bowl of noodles from the newly opened Phat Pho at Serendra.


We had eaten there the week before; miraculously the place was not too full on a Saturday night. It was indeed very good pho, much lighter than Pho 24 in Rockwell, which was pretty bad when it first opened and absolutely wretched by the time it ditched the franchise and closed.


Pho 2000 in Saigon is a must. You will emerge sweating from the chillies, the herbs and the fragrant, steaming broth (as well as the lack of air-conditioning). If you aren’t willing to traipse through the madness of District 1, then Pho 24 is an easier, more civilized option, with numerous locations throughout the city.


The broth at the Philippine franchise of Pho 24 bore no resemblance to its namesake in Vietnam, though. My memory of what the broth tasted like is somewhat clouded by time. But I

Phat Pho interior

think Phat Pho comes fairly close, or at least closer than any of the other pho joints in the city.


Phat Pho is a very self-conscious joint, a kind of ironic rendition of a Vietnamese street stall in an upscale mall and at upscale prices. The small bowl of noodles might satisfy a Vietnamese soldier because he can survive on leaves and tree bark, as American troops discovered to their chagrin in the 1960s.


A big bowl of noodles might just about satisfy a Manileño if you have dessert somewhere afterwards.


The menu apart from pho is fairly limited, which is not something it can be faulted on since it advertises itself as a pho restaurant and not a comprehensive Vietnamese dining place. Many of the appetizers looked promising, although the Bo Kho beef stew that was recommended (and that we ordered) was underseasoned and underwhelming.


Missed opportunity


But what a missed opportunity, because Vietnamese cuisine is gloriously tasty when done right. The intricacy with which the Vietnamese fashion vegetables and vermicelli and bits of grilled meat, shrimp or frogs’ legs hints at a food culture that has an abundance of labor and a shortage of produce. The cuisine manages, however, to tickle the taste buds and be crunchy and cooling and filling at the same time.


For some reason, no restaurant has yet been able to replicate that mix of explosive flavors and fresh, light goodness.


Phat Pho interior

In 2007, a migrant food researcher named My Lien Nguyen did an analysis of canh chua cá lóc, a traditional Vietnamese fish soup, and found that although a substantial number of the plant ingredients had to be substituted, the essential character of the soup could still be maintained in the United States.


Given that our climate is similar to Vietnam’s, I don’t see why it can’t be done, and I do hope Phat Pho expands its menu with the similar mix of irreverence and authenticity it has brought to noodle soup.


As for getting away for a vacation, I think the only place left where I won’t see anyone at all is a sensory deprivation chamber—and I’m seriously thinking of getting one for my birthday. No one I know has that on their Facebook wall just yet.


Phat Pho, G/F, Serendra Mall, Bonifacio Global City; tel. 8041646.



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