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Montreal Pho-down: Pho Bac #1 vs. Pho Lien

Posted by Amie / July 26, 2010

Montreal Pho-downCloves, star anise, cinnamon and other secrets of the best Vietnamese noodle soups in Montreal.

The Criteria: Broth and meat - two deceptively simple categories

The Winner? Pho Lien...for now.

Pho LienVietnamese noodle soup (pho - pronounced somewhere between "phuh" and "phah") is cheap, delicious, and filling, and sometimes even healthy. It's also very simple, or so it seems. Broth, noodles, beef (or chicken), raw onion, maybe some lettuce or green onions, and basil, bean sprouts, lime, hoisin and hot sauce on the side. It's just chicken or beef noodle soup with some garnishes. You can buy that in a can, right?

Nope. Pho in a can would be like packaged St-Hubert gravy for poutine. It might taste okay, but it's nothing like home-made veal stock added to a roux and reduced to seasoned perfection.
Pho BacThe point is that you can get Pho all over Montreal but great pho is hard to come by. Both beef and chicken pho are traditional, but often only the beef pho at a Vietnamese restaurant will feature the complex broth of charred onion and ginger, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, salt, rock sugar, and fish sauce. It's supposed to be slightly sweet, a little salty, but a little rich in fat from the meat and very rich in flavour from the charring and the spices. To strain the fat you need to wait for the broth to cool, often overnight, and then strain it off, so that's not what you're getting in pho restaurants, and it's maybe not what you want anyway. The broth shouldn't be too dark, because most of the impurities are washed off after a quick initial boiling. The differences in home-made home broths depend on the amount of each spice and flavouring used, as well as the addition of a few optional extras or replacements, like daikon radish, black cardamom, or different kinds of beef bones.

The way many restaurants make delicious pho without the work of making a good broth is by adding MSG - the bad cook's cheat. Symptoms of a food intolerance of MSG can range from headaches, irritability, anxiety, cramps, and rashes, to more severe reactions. For a lot of people even the milder reactions are enough to turn them off pho altogether, since it's sometimes hard to be sure what's in the broth by just asking your server. They didn't make it, and the person who did might not even be around.

...but a great pho broth shouldn't cause you any of these problems, and if you're not going to make your own broth from scratch, some great broth can usually be found at Pho Lien.
Beef Pho at Pho LienI came here once for dinner and was absolutely blown away by the broth, but I came here again for lunch and was completely disappointed. I feel like I spend my life in Vietnamese restaurants asking, "Where are the cloves? I don't taste cloves!" Cloves are a hard-to-miss flavour. They're what make a pumpkin pie taste like Thanksgiving. Sure, there's also mace, a strong, bitter spice from nutmeg, but for me, Thanksgiving and pho are all about cloves. The first time I had the beef pho here I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I wondered how anyone could possibly be a vegetarian once they'h tasted something like this. The second time - nothing. Suddenly all the cloves were gone and the complexity of the broth had disappeared right along with them. I like my broth a little complicated.

So maybe the lunch broth was made differently or by a different chef than the evening broth. Maybe it needed to simmer longer. Maybe the broth will never be as good at lunch as it is at dinner for that reason. Or maybe it was just an off-lunch. Still, it wasn't what I wanted. I demand complication, consistency, and perfection, and I don't even know if that's possible. Maybe in terms of broth only. I suppose I'm romantically doomed.

Beef Pho at Pho BacPho Bac #1's beef broth was boring, and apparently I also demand excitement. I'm used to being disappointed by a lack of cloves, but here I couldn't even register cinnamon or star anise. The whole things just tasted bland. It wasn't too salty, so it's possible MSG wasn't involved, but it wasn't anything special. The noodles were hand-made, which was a highlight, since my dining companion pointed out the fact that they were cut unevenly, but they didn't taste any different than Pho Lien where I assume they are also hand-made.

Now I've heard that Restaurant Dakao is a beef pho force to be reckoned with (situated just west of the Jean-Talon metro in a subterranean hideaway) but the family who owns it is on vacation until August 11th. I heard this from a woman at the Delices d'Asie in Jean-Talon market (across the way from the poissonerie) who said that Restaurant Dakao's beef pho broth reminded her of her mother's. Now that's a good sign.

I actually had my best bowl of chicken pho (pho ga) there, at Delices d'Asie. Instead of a simple chicken broth, their broth was made with the same spices as a beef pho - cloves, cinnamon and star anise. They use the same broth for their beef, chicken and pork(! Not so traditional) pho, though, so getting beef here would be a bit weird since it's made from chicken broth. You also can't sit there and enjoy the pho, you get half as much as at another restaurant for just slightly less, and you can't get different cuts of beef (no raw, which is my favourite). I can pretty much guarantee, however, that it's the only organic pho broth in the city, AND there's a big sign that says "NO MSG".

Chicken Pho Ga at Pho LienI was told that the chicken pho ga at Pho Lien was made in beef broth, and because the opposite is true at Delices d'Asie, I believed the server. He lied. As it turns out, the pho ga is made with a very simple, slightly sweet chicken broth. There are little globules of fat that sit on top, just as they should, and it cures what ails you (apparently you actually need some of the fat to get the full healthful benefits of chicken soup). It's nowhere near as complex as the combination of spices in the beef broth, but sometimes simple is good...I hear.

...and it was miles better than Pho Bac #1. Pho Ga at Pho BacThere the broth was a little bitter and a little too salty. Now the funny thing is, I actually kind of preferred Pho Bac #1 despite the broth. The chicken in the broth was grilled. Purists are now shooting me dirty looks, I know, but the crisp, slightly charred flavour of the meat was much more interesting than the shredded, boiled flesh at Pho Lien. Yes, I know it's supposed to be shredded and boiled, since that shows that a whole chicken was used to make the broth, then the meat was set aside, shredded, and then added back to the soup, but it also just makes it chewy.

So between Pho Lien and Pho Bac #1, go to Pho Lien for beef pho. There are about 8 beef pho options at $7 for a small, $8 for a large, and $9 for two days worth of food, aka XL (all tax inc.). These include raw, well-cooked, brisket, tendon, tripe, and well-done flank. Then there's the "cow-in-a-bowl" (my words, not theirs) for an extra 25 cents. Some of these pieces of beef are acquired tastes, but the real shining star is the raw beef. It's basically cut very thin like Chinese fondue and cooks only once it's added to the noodle broth just before serving. The broth, brought to a boil, barely needs to soften it, and as long as the quality is high there shouldn't be a risk of contamination. It's like beef carpaccio at a fancy restaurant, but about $30 cheaper.

At the restaurant you can order all raw beef, but that's ridiculous because you won't possibly be able to eat it all while it's raw. By the time you make it through the bowl of beef, only your first few mouthfuls would be raw and then the next would be medium, and by the end if would be well-done. So order a combination bowl to make it worth it.

If the raw is really your favourite, like me, then this is probably the only restaurant where it's maybe better to get take-out (If you order all cooked pieces of beef, please eat at the restaurant to save the environment from heaps of Styrofoam). Now you wouldn't think you'd want to order raw beef soup and carry it home to eat. The heat promotes the growth and spread of bacteria, so ideally you'd want to eat at the restaurant to not give those guys a chance at procreation. I always say there are too many children in the world anyway, but here, you do want to take the soup to go. It gets packed in two separate Styrofoam containers (I know, awful for the environment, but the only way to travel with hot soup), with the beef left uncooked in one along with the noodles and bean sprouts, and then the soup in another. So when you get home you bring the broth to a boil. Then you only half of the beef and noodles to the broth. Immediately scoop out a ladle of broth and all of the beef and noodles. Add some bean sprouts and basil and have your lime at the ready. This way the beef is barely cooked when you eat it. Raw beef is tender when it's good quality. If you wait at the restaurant to be served (even though service is fast) even your raw beef will not be raw when it arrives. So if you're at home, you eat some, and then when you want more you put more briefly in the boiling broth (keep the beef and beef-contaminated noodles in the fridge while you eat the first bowl) and then move it into the pot. Traditionally the uncooked beef would be placed in the bowl along with the cooked noodles, and the hot broth poured on top, but traveling from the restaurant to your house can potentially leave a long gap between the time you take possession of the unrefrigerated raw beef and your dinner. So better safe than sick.

The reason you don't want to add the noodles too early to the pot is they get too soft when they're left sitting in the broth, and if you refrigerate leftovers they'll be mush when you heat them up the next day. Reheating the broth whenever you want seconds or thirds takes no time at all. Just don't boil off too much broth. The flavour will concentrate more this way, but you'll end up with less broth overall. So it's a trade-off. You can add more water to dilute it back to normal but it's hard to know where normal is. You're also supposed to trust that the chef got the broth to the perfect concentration in HIS kitchen, and you're not really supposed to mess with that.
Shrimp and Beef Springrolls at Pho LienAnother reason to take out at Pho Lien (or any pho place with raw beef) is because they give you a little container of hoisin mixed with hot sauce, two things I generally don't use in my pho, but do use in my other cooking. You also get to keep any leftover peanut sauce from the cold spring rolls, which is worth it in and of itself. Perfect on stir-fried anything. I swear that stuff is spiked with something. It tastes like something rich and beef-related. I just pray it's not something MSG- or corn syrup-related. I'm too scared to ask. The sauce at Pho Lien is served slightly warm and topped with tasty, fresh peanuts. One unique thing they do is put beef in the actual roll. Yes, you can see shrimp in the picture above, but there is also cooked, finely sliced beef, like what goes in the soup. It has a little flavour, and as long as you aren't really upset to discover beef in the roll, you'll probably like it. It really does add flavour. Take-out also lets you keep your garnishes, say, if you don't want all the bean sprouts at the time. You actually waste less of what's put in front of you at a meal of pho by getting take-out, minus the Styrofoam, plastic condiment containers and plastic bag. Oh, and of course you save a little money by not having to tip your server. The environment is screwed either way when you eat out, so it's your choice.
Pho Bac Spring RollsThis post is not about the spring rolls, but the accompanying peanut sauce was a million times better at Pho Lien than at Pho Bac. Pho Bac's ($2.50 for one cold roll) had a natural unsweetened peanut taste, which makes me theoretically happy, but is not as sweet and richly addictive as Pho Lien's ($3 for two cold rolls).

So does Pho Bac #1 have any winning qualities besides the un-traditional grilled chicken and natural, yet bland, peanut sauce? I would very much like to try their other noodle dishes with chicken, since they grill a good chicken, after all. In a dish where the chicken is actually supposed to be grilled this could be amazing. Maybe some Vietnamese bun here (vermicelli noodles with lettuce and herbs, often meat and a spring roll, served with a little bowl of sweetened fish sauce to pour on top) or a different cooked dish would be another Vietnamese epiphany. Maybe not...but it would probably be very good for the price. The pho costs a little less at Pho Bac #1 too ($6 for a small, $6.50 for a large, and $7.25 for an XL) but it's not worth going here over Pho Lien just for the price, even if Pho Lien is having an off-broth-day. Still, the locations are so far apart that if you don't have a vehicle or a lot of commuting time on your hands it might be worth wandering the menu at Pho Bac #1.

...but be warned: Pho Bac #1 really doesn't pride itself on its food. When I asked to take my leftover pho to go they put the noodles in one container with the broth. Like I said above, you're not really supposed to do that because the noodles get soggy. Basically it ruins the soup. They'd probably keep them separate if I'd gotten it to go in the first place, but after having eaten half, it's a bit of trouble to do, and so a restaurant won't do this unless it's important to them to ensure the quality of the leftover soup.

So my dreams of cloves, cinnamon and star anise are partially answered but I'm not convinced that Pho Lien is the best pho in Montreal. I just don't know where that is. Yet.

Restaurant Pho Bac #1

4707 rue Wellington
Verdun (Montreal)
514-362-1022
Expect To Pay: $8-$12 for soup and an order of spring rolls
6 1/2 out of 10

Pho Lien
5703 Côte des Neiges
514-735-6949
Expect To Pay: $12.50-$14.00 for soup and an order of spring rolls.
8 1/2 out of 10

Discussion

23 Comments

logan / July 27, 2010 at 06:03 pm
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I really like this vs. series, any idea on where to get good okonomiyaki in montreal?
Amie / July 28, 2010 at 10:27 pm
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I'm so glad you like it! If you have suggestions for future throwdowns feel free to post comments and let me know. I'll see what I can do for you.

For okonomiyaki, after checking with my Japanese resources and doing some of my own research, the only place I know that MAY have it is Izakaya on Parc just north of Sherbrooke (the menu changes frequently), but I wouldn't be surprised if it turned up sometime at Kazu on Ste-Catherine around St-Mathieu. I think their menu changes fairly regularly as well, but it seems like the kind of food they would serve at some point. Other than that, there's a Japanese festival coming up in the Old Port on August 14th, and I'd imagine there would be some there. The Japanese Cultural Centre is very involved with the festival and when they host events at their centre up at Jarry they always serve it. Here's the info on the festival August 14th: http://festivaljapon.com/ If delicious okonomiyaki isn't there, there'll at least be other good Japanese food.
Angelo / July 31, 2010 at 12:55 am
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For great pho, I suggest getting out of Pho Lien, and walking downhill on Cote-des-Neiges past Plamondon to Pho Hoa. The selection is just as good as Pho Lien and is definitely worth a try.
Jan replying to a comment from logan / July 31, 2010 at 04:44 pm
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There is a new restaurant called "L'entoilage". You can find delicious Okonomiyaki there.
Check the website : http://www.lentoilage.com , address :5251 St-laurent,Montreal, QC
Amie replying to a comment from Jan / August 1, 2010 at 01:49 pm
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Yup, I think L'Entoilage is definitely your best bet. The others don't have okonomiyaki on their actual menus. You might just get lucky and find it as a daily special. Thanks for the heads-up on L'Entoilage, Jan.
Amie replying to a comment from Angelo / August 1, 2010 at 02:02 pm
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Apparently Pho Hoa has had a whole lot of trouble in the last few years with rodents and food sanitation issues, like food being kept at the wrong temperature (probably meaning food kept out of the fridge too long, which is definitely an important issue with raw beef), and generally being unclean in the restaurant. It's cost them $16 500 in fines. Their broth could be very good, but I don't really want to eat there.
Cathy / August 5, 2010 at 11:51 am
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I'm vietnamese and Pho Lien is the BEST. Their spring rolls are the best I've tasted and their 3-bean coconut dessert gives me constant cravings. Only complaint is that they're stingy on the meat in their soups but the broth more than makes up for it.
Jack / August 10, 2010 at 11:13 pm
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Glad that Montrealers are no longer calling it "Tonkingnese soup". Welcome to the rest of the world dumb Montrealers.
Jill / May 15, 2011 at 11:54 pm
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Hey Jackass, shut the fuck up. Maybe you and your inbred cousins call it tonkingnese soup but us Montrealers have always called it Pho.
Michiko / January 28, 2012 at 03:24 pm
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Pho Lien sucks. In Montreal, there's so many other place where the Pho is soooo much better. I've brought a vietnamese friend (who previously brought me to Pho Lien) to Pho Viet on Amherst, and it blew is mind. I really like Nguyen Phi too who's in front of Kent's Park on CDN.
madame Nguyen / September 22, 2014 at 11:02 am
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Maybe they ceased using "tonkinoise" soup but they're still using spring rolls or imperial rolls, as a vietnanese, I still don't know which is which. And if you google the name and image, you can also see the confusion. Use cha gio, which is fried and gio cuon is rolled in rice paper (not fried).

Another thing, anyone who floods the broth with sriracha or hoisin sauce, shouldn't be commenting on the best pho.

Or mentioning pho ga in the same page as pho bo, just loses much credibility.
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