Last updated October 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Vietnam’s best-known dish, phở is a beef noodle soup that’s defined by the complexity of its broth. There’s a constant squabble between north and south over which has the best phở in the country – an argument that the north usually wins, largely because this is where the dish originated, sometime is the early 20th century (although this is up for debate). For my part, despite having lived in the south of the country for over a decade, I agree that northern phở trumps southern. The main reason for this is that the northern broth has more depth and magic to it than the sweet, watery versions you find in the south. In particular, finding an outstanding bowl of phở in Saigon has always been a difficult task. However, although I cannot claim to have tried every bowl in the city, I have now found one of which I can say, with confidence, is my favourite phở in Saigon.
Phở Phượng occupies a quiet corner at 25 Hoàng Sa Street, in Saigon’s District 1, opposite the newly developed, tree-lined banks of the Thị Nghè Channel. Phở Phượng moved to this location several years ago from its previous site at the nearby Điện Biên Phủ traffic circle, where it had been operating for 30 years. With over a generation of experience there’s a calm confidence about Phở Phượng. From the outside there’s nothing to distinguish it from similar eateries all over Saigon, but when the rich, meaty aroma first hits you from the bubbling cauldron of broth, you just know you’re in for something special.
Images: Phở Phượng, Saigon
For me, this phở begins and ends with cinnamon and star anise: it’s the fragrance that dominates the broth from the first moment you smell it, and it’s the taste that lingers in your mouth long after the meal is over. But, while cinnamon and star anise are the high notes of this bowl of phở, it’s complemented by a background of deeper tones, such as cloves, ginger, shallots and, of course, beef. Once you add sawtooth coriander, basil leaves, rice paddy herb, and a squeeze of lime the broth takes on an almost medicinal quality – deep and soothing like an exotic Vicks Vaporub that spreads, warms and cleanses your body.
Ms Phượng, a sturdy, stern woman from the north, is the proprietor, and she seems justifiably proud of her product. Like all the best places to eat in Vietnam, Phở Phượng is a family-run business, and this is their one and only outlet: there are no other branches. A bowl of phở here is 45,000-60,000vnd (over $2, which is fairly pricey by Vietnamese standards). It’s open all day.
MAP: Phở Phượng | 25 Hoang Sa Street, Da Kao ward, District 1, Saigon
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