First of all, let’s clear up the debate on how you say it. Written with accents in the right places and hailing originally from northern Vietnam, it’s not as simple as sounding what you see. This soupy, noodle-filled dish, flourishing with fresh herbs, chilli and (in some cases) offal, is a national Vietnamese dish swimming with fragrant spices and one that fans feel quite passionate about – from who does it best, to how you pronounce it.
“I’ve seen posters that say ‘Pho is my bro’ and that line just does not work,” snorts Nahji Chu of the Misschu tuckshops in Sydney and Melbourne. “If you take your pho seriously then you know that this rhyme doesn’t work – it’s a round-eye attempt at pho.”
Pronounced more like ‘fuh’ and definitely not like ‘faux’, there are slight variations, depending on accent, but your best bet is to stick with ‘fur’.
“It comes from the French [influence in Vietnam],” says Chu, “and means ‘pot of stock’. So it’s soup with roasted cinnamon, star anise and cloves. There is burnt garlic, burnt ginger and onions. They’re burnt because in Vietnam, they don’t have ovens and we’d do it all on coals and scrape off the char.”
At Misschu, there is one pho on the menu – Wagyu beef pho – and it comes with a note on pronunciation for anyone who’s a first timer.
The dish is typically finished with rice noodles and in most cases (as with Misschu) sliced beef. But variations can also include chicken or offal cuts. The true-to-tradition versions that get fans all fired up include tendon, tripe and beef balls, giving the dish a distinctive flavour. “We don’t have the tripe included in the dish [at Misschu], But more Aussies are showing interest in this now,” says Chu. “It’s different to 10 years ago when the tendon and tripe was always left behind in the bowl after the soup and noodles were gone.”
At I Love Pho in Crows Nest, the menu notes that one of the key features of a good bowl of pho is an abundance of fresh herbs, including Vietnamese mint, basil, coriander, chilli and perilla, provided on the side so that the diner can add them at will and create a unique spectrum of flavours with every bowl. Additional extras might include crispy bean sprouts, finely sliced green onion and a big wedge of lemon for a final spritz.
At Pho Pasteur in Haymarket, you can order a chicken pho (pho gà) if you’re not into the more obscure cuts, or order the ‘Pho Special’ to be sure of added tendon. While at An Restaurant in Bankstown, there are 15 pho options, some of which include tripe, chicken hearts or blood jelly.
Regardless of how adventurous you’re feeling, one thing’s for sure: this is one bowl of rice noodle soup that is addictive no matter how you say it. Chu furnishes us with a Vietnamese pho colloquialism that was passed on from her mother: “Pho dai bo bang muoi thuoc bac. Que phu sam nhung chua chac gi hon,” translating as “Pho is a better tonic than 10 Chinese herbs – even cinnamon and ginseng can't compare.”
And tasting a well-made pho, you’d have to agree.
Here’s our pick of where to get a big bowl of pho:
Try pho gà – chicken noodle soup, with a clear broth, rice noodles, fresh Vietnamese basil, bean sprouts and lemon. Or upgrade to the ‘special’ with tendon.
709 George Street, Sydney CBD
(02) 9212 5622
137 Church Street, Parramatta
(02) 9635 0782
Song Nhi Vietnam
The most popular dish is the rare beef pho, with side plates of chilli, bean sprouts, fresh herbs and lemon wedges. The beef cooks slowly in the broth and the chilli has a powerful kick.
56–62 Chandos Street, St Leonards
(02) 9438 1433
I Love Pho
Pho Dac Biet has all the good stuff – rare beef, beef flank, beef balls and tendon. Bowls are big and deep, the chilli sauce is hot and there are plenty of bean sprouts for added crunch.
47 Willoughby road, Crows Nest
(02) 8065 1129
Pho Tau Bay
Pho Dac Biet is a winner here too. Bottomless bowls, plenty of sliced green onion and a rich, sweet and smoky broth swimming with rice noodles. The special has brisket, tendons and beef balls and there are baskets of condiments at each table.
12/117 John Street, Cabramatta
(02) 9726 4583
Pick one of five locations. Playing for a clean and clear taste, Misschu avoids all MSG and uses wagyu beef for a dish that has a clarity that’s hard to find in most pho.
Cheap and cheerful beef pho. Go for the fresh beef option with plenty of chilli and whole handfuls of fresh herbs and sliced onion. Or step it up with the special, including beef balls. The broth is rich and sweet.
236 King Street, Newtown
(02) 9550 2480
There’s pretty much only pho on the menu here, so you know they do it right. Try pho tai – rare beef with generous servings of fresh herbs, sliced green onion and a distinctly spiced aroma. There are 15 options on offer (beef or chicken), including some for the more adventurous with additions like chicken hearts, intestine or blood jelly.