Photo by Hanoian from Flickr.
Considered a traditional Vietnamese dish, pho actually only came onto the foodie scene about 100 years ago, tracing its roots to the French occupation and the desire to create a dish that was a happy medium between Viet (the noodlage) and French (le boeuf) cuisines. History lessons aside, pho is a low cost, low fat and healthy way to fill your tummy. It tastes really damn good too.
We kicked it classic style for this challenge and stuck with the Pho Bo Tai. All of the contestants also serve up other meats, such as some intriguing tripe-based pho. Just as an aside for you vegetarians out there, finding true veg-friendly pho can be difficult as many places use meat in making the broth.
- Pho 88. A contender for the best pho in Toronto according to several publications, such as NOW Magazine and the ever illustrious Torontoist, Pho 88 has been serving up the goods since 1989 and boasts a location on Spadina as well as one in Mississauga.
- Pho Hung. Well loved by Torontonians, Pho Hung is regarded as one of the best in the Vietnamese soup game. Torontoist would like to point out that their sign also features a wonderful likeness of La Vache Qui Rit, though we are uncertain what pho and soft French cheeses have in common. Yumminess, perhaps?
- Rua Vang Golden Turtle. The only contestant off the beaten Spadina track, Golden Turtle is, according to Toronto.com, the place where none other than Susur Lee goes to get his pho fix. Snap!
- Xe Lua. A bit of an underdog in this challenge, Xe Lua does not appear to have won any grand prizes for its pho. It is also described by some online chat rooms as dirty and lacking in great service. That being said, it is a name that is bandied about by those in the know when it comes to pho. So there you go.
- Visuals. Pho is lovely to behold, with its different components all floating around in a pretty bowl.
- Ingredients. Is there enough of everything and are all the necessary bits accounted for? Thai basil? Lime wedges? Sprouts? Is there an adequate portion of beef? Proper amount of noodles? Too much broth?
- Freshness. Freshness is key to a great pho, especially when we take into account that there’s raw beef and sprouts involved.
- Flavour. Is the broth too salty, too bland, or just right? Are all the pho-necessary flavours present?
- Cleanliness. Spadina may have some of the best restaurants in the city, but they aren’t always the cleanest. Then again, sometimes they are so clean it hurts your eyes. It can really go both ways.
Pho is generally a pretty cheap meal, but for the sake of having additional criteria we’ve rated them. We ordered a small from each contestant.
Pho88 ($5.50); Golden Turtle Rua Vang ($5.00); Pho Hung ($4.75); Xe Lua ($4.25)
- Visuals. Pho 88—4.5/5. The whole presentation was spot on, with the sauce trolley, the well laid out plate of accoutrements, and the bowl of steamy goodness.
- Ingredients. Golden Turtle—4.5/5. Really nice cuts of beef, all the necessary ingredients, and very generous portions.
- Freshness. Xe Lua—5/5. This contestant had truly impressive freshness levels. The sprig of basil actually made one of the judging panel mouth a “wow.”
- Flavour. Golden Turtle—5/5. The best broth by far, Golden Turtle’s offering could actually be eaten without the extra sauces and still be lovely.
- Cleanliness. Pho 88—4.5/5. Maybe it’s the renovation, but the whole restaurant had a new, clean vibe that managed to not be sterile.
We try to approach our contestants without any pre-conceived notions. Reputations are not always accurate, and so we tried to not allow the less positive comments that we had read regarding Xe Lua bias us when we visited. The restaurant, which is on a second floor, has obviously been recently renovated. That being said, it didn’t smell of new wood and fresh paint; rather, a curious and slightly sinister chemical smell confronted our olfactory senses. The owners have also decided on wall-to-wall carpet, which is, in Torontoist’s opinion, a nightmare when it comes to cleanliness in any restaurant. The service at Xe Lua was the least pleasant of any of the contestants—the staff didn’t actually say anything to us, and the accoutrements for our pho didn’t arrive with the broth until we asked twice. Really loud, spastic techno confirmed an atmosphere that was less than ducky. Once we had received our full order, however, we noted the absolute freshness of the ingredients. Xe Lua won top marks for the loveliest sprig of Thai Basil we had ever seen, super crunchy sprouts, a mysterious green biting chili, and quality cuts of meat that had not yet had a chance to cook in the broth. After adding the sauces—cleverly hidden in ketchup and mustard bottles—we dug in. The biggest red flag for us was that Xe Lua had deemed it acceptable to add cilantro straight into the broth. We’re not talking garnish levels, either—this was so full on that one judge barely touched her serving. We realize that some people love cilantro, but enough people abhor it that it should only be offered on the side. Xe Lua also used thick flat noodles in their pho; this didn’t change the flavour experience, but it quickly became clear that there’s no way you should try eating this on a first date, unless you think that having broth all over you and your companion is romantic. The soup was definitely on the bland side, and though the portion was huge, the whole experience really fell short.
Pho Hung has come up next in our challenge, beating out Xe Lua by only half a point. While Pho Hung was definitely cleaner and their staff, with the exception of one who really wanted us to pay our bill the instant we put down our spoons, were much more pleasant, their pho presentation was just not as nice. It wasn’t that it was unappetizing, but it just didn’t make our mouths water like some of the other contestants. There was more than enough broth and we found it to be quite flavourful, however we found the portions of beef and basil to be lacking. We also noted the absence of the mystery biting chili that, while not something we want to actually consume, we have become quite fond of. It pleased us to know that our pho was brought out super fresh, with the beef still in the process of cooking before our eyes, but we found the meat to be a bit tough, with extra chewing time required. Pho Hung also added cilantro directly to their pho. The difference between the previously mentioned “cilantrofication” and this one is that Pho Hung uses it sparsely as a garnish, making it easy to pick out. We were pleased to note that the flavour did not permeate the pho to the point of distraction. Pho Hung has line ups out the door, and if this is based purely on their pho-production, then we have to admit some confusion. Plethora of rewards aside, this is not, in Torontoist’s opinion, the best pho in the city. Perhaps, having been declared the best for so many years, Pho Hung has become lazy and is now in full laurel-resting mode. Regardless, we still enjoyed the experience and wouldn’t stamp our feet and pout if a group of friends wanted us to go there in the future.
Photo of pho from Pho88 by Julie Reitsma; photo of Pho88 exterior by Chu Hefner from Flickr.
Newly renovated Pho 88 has taken the second place spot in our challenge. While Torontoist realizes that “courtesy” or “pleasantness” were not actual criteria for this challenge, we need to make note of the following. While Xe Lua were not overly-friendly, and were actually almost completely mute if you disregard a few instances of muttering, Pho 88 started out on the wrong foot in a big way. Due to our intent to hit up four different pho locations in one afternoon, Torontoist decided to order on the conservative side in order to save on tummy room and unfortunately Pho 88 didn’t think this was a good plan, indicating that they would prefer we order more than just a small pho. While apologies abounded once one of the judging panel made clear our intentions, we still found it slightly unpleasant that we were being asked to spend more money in a restaurant that was barely half full. We must remember, however, that this is about the pho; and this pho was really good. All the necessary ingredients were present, including the mysterious biting chili, cilantro “stalks”—that could have been fresher—were offered on the side, lots of basil, sprouts, lime, noodles and good helping of beef. The sauces were all in proper containers and there was even a lovely jar of crushed chili in oil. Misunderstandings aside, Pho 88 does a great job with their soup. We’d definitely like to go again and hope that this time we order enough to satisfy the staff.
When we got our bowl of Golden Turtle’s pho placed in front of us, the first thing that we noticed was the absolutely delicious smells of cinnamon and ginger. To be honest, there isn’t much that Golden Turtle hasn’t gotten spot on when it comes to their soupy fare. Their ingredients are fresh, their flavours are drool-worthy, and the portions of all the crucial elements are generous, without a sprig of soup-tainting cilantro in sight. Torontoist was tipped off to Golden Turtle some time ago by the only member of our judging panel to have lived in Vietnam. This gracious judge had deemed Golden Turtle to be the cat’s meow long before this challenge sprang to mind, and after touring up and down Spadina with us her opinion has not swayed. While the atmosphere of Golden Turtle isn’t quite as appealing as Pho 88, it is a tidy establishment with the friendliest shopkeeps encountered during our expedition. It is obvious that the staff of Golden Turtle know who their regulars are. While we ate, more than one patron was able to pick up some goodness without having to remind the staff what they had ordered or even give a name. What really makes Golden Turtle the best for us is not only the best pho, but the overall experience—a family atmosphere, a clean floor, an invited lack of really bad electronica, a great location. Spadina, with all of its noises, sights and smells, is an intrinsic part of our city, and while being able to navigate it successfully is the mark of a true Torontonian, sometimes we don’t want to brave it, and the Golden Turtle experience requires no bravery at all. Unless, perhaps, you order the tripe.
Photo of Golden Turtle exterior by Mr. & Mrs. Sell from Flickr; photo of pho from Golden Turtle by theyoush from Flickr.