Viet Nam News
A naturally wary Hanoian steps into a restaurant in Paris, and is blown away by the iconic noodle soup on offer. Hoang Anh describes his experience.
If you are in a strange place and looking for a good place to eat, a long queue in front of a restaurant is a reassuring sign.
So, when I saw a line of people braving the winter cold to get into Phở Quatorze at 129 Avenue de Choisy in Paris’ District 13, my hopes were up, despite a certain wariness that comes with being a Hanoian.
In case you don’t now it, every Hanoian is wary of having a bowl of phở anywhere else, and I am not an exception.
Unfortunately, the wariness is justified, as most places do not get it right. Whether it is the ingredient – some people prepare it with pork. Blasphemy! – or the way it is cooked, there is always something wrong, something that disappoints.
The phở in this Paris restaurant did not disappoint, I am happy to report. In fact, it was excellent, and justified the queue.
Let me go even further, the phở at Phở Quatorze is one of the best you can find, inside or outside Việt Nam.
For those not familiar with the cuisine, while phở is largely known around the world as signature Vietnamese dish, there are quite a few different versions of it, depending on the place of origin.
Long line: Expectant diners wait outside of Phở Quatorze despite the winter cold. — VNS Photos Hoàng Anh
Two notable styles are Hà Nội and Sài Gòn – the former name of Hồ Chí Minh City. Phở Quatorze offers the latter version.
Let’s talk about the broth – the soul of phở. Those who are familiar with the dish can tell right away if their phở is right the moment they taste the broth.
Ideally, the broth should taste a little sweet – not the sweetness that comes from cooking additives like monosodium-glutamate, but by simmering bones for an extended period of time – and flavours from numerous spices like onions, star anise, cinnamon, spring onion and ginger – a strong yet subtle mix.
Phở Quatorze’s phở scored big in the broth department. I could certainly taste the bone in the broth, even a bit too much. It mildly overwhelmed less-strong flavours like star anise and the cinnamon. For the size of their bowls, which is quite large, I would personally prefer stronger ginger and cinnamon flavours as it helps to lighten the broth and reduce the thickness in the overall flavour.
In any case, I ended up finishing the broth. A pointer here: should you ever come across a phở place where people often empty their bowls to the last drop, write the address down.
I recommend the “special” at this restaurant, which includes cuts of rare beef and meat balls (beef). While it’s not on the menu, I’d also suggest you ask for a compliment of beef flank, which at first glance may appear to look like fat. I assure you that it does not taste anything like fat, though.
I love the meat balls even if it’s definitely not the Hà Nội style. The flavour was there and they were juicy on the inside. However, the biggest surprise was the beef flank. It was not just good, it was unique. I know of no other phở restaurant that offers it in this style.
Phở, Hà Nội style, also offers beef flank. It is, however, often a mix of fat and meat. That makes it tricky to get right. Too long and the fat becomes slimy, too much heat and the meat becomes chewy. Phở Quatorze offers just the fat, which they cook perfectly. It was rich in flavour yet not overwhelming, crunchy yet not dry, which it is very difficult to do. Only a small part of the cow’s fat can be used to make it and it has to be prepared just right.
The only beef I’ve got with Phở Quatorze was, pun intended, is their rare beef. Rare beef is rather standard in phở, but for some reason that I do not understand, their cuts were too thick. Also, they were kind of square shaped and not cut against the grain, which made it unnecessarily chewy. Rare beef should be both juicy and tender and I believe that it should at least be cut thinner, it would help a lot with how it tastes.
The “special” at Phở Quatorze will cost you just US$10. You can also get a glass of Vietnamese coffee or tri-colour sweet for desert here for another $4.25 for a total of a little more than $14. It is quite a treat and excellent value for money, especially by Parisian standards.
While I had my reservations at first, I returned to the restaurant several times. It was a pleasant surprise to find such well-made phở in a foreign city. VNS