Simple but satisfying!
Among the innumerable pho shops in Ha Noi, Pho Thin is in a league of its own. How do they make noodles and beef taste so good? Julie Ginsberg finds out.
I have a confession to make: for the first three months I lived in Ha Noi, I didn’t especially like pho.
I gave it a fair try – after all, Ha Noi pho is considered a culinary delicacy nationwide, so as a new Hanoian I was determined to appreciate it. But after sampling a handful of the thousands of pho joints scattered around Ha Noi, I still didn’t understand the appeal. Pho was just noodles and beef in broth, nothing to write home about.
But then I tried Pho Thin at 13 Lo Duc Street.
After my first bite (slurp?), I knew this was not just any pho. It tasted entirely different from any I’d ever tried: the beef was lean and tender, the broth flavourful and aromatic. I dived into my bowl and ate until not a noodle remained.
As I discovered on a subsequent visit to Pho Thin at 8.30am, I’m far from the only one who thinks this is the best pho around. When I first tried Pho Thin, I hadn’t realised I was sitting in the extra seating section, not the main restaurant. This time, the owner barked at me, “Money!” and sent me two doors down to the much larger main eatery, where a line of people was waiting to pay and receive their steaming bowls in return.
It was a veritable pho factory, the closest thing to Vietnamese fast food that I’ve yet experienced in Ha Noi. Pho Thin’s efficient method for handling as many as 2,000 customers per day would make McDonalds proud.
After paying VND13,000 (US$0.80) for a bowl of pho and some quay (crispy bread sticks for dipping), I squeezed into one of the long tables lined with diners. I added half a ladle of homemade vinegar and a touch of spicy sauce and dug in, marvelling at the subtle, simple goodness of this combination of basic ingredients.
A little investigation confirmed my suspicions that Pho Thin’s product is one of a kind. In 1980, Pho Thin became a fixture on the Ha Noi pho scene when owner Nguyen Trong Thin introduced his innovation on the classic dish: stir-frying the beef instead of boiling it, as is customary. Within six months, the taste had made waves, becoming so popular that in 1999 Thin purchased more space to expand the restaurant.
Copycat restaurants bearing the same name have since popped up, but don’t be fooled: there is but one true Pho Thin.
Twenty-seven years after its founding, the restaurant still has no trouble filling its seats without advertising. Fifty-six-year-old Thin, who can always be found outside overseeing the operation, chatting with regulars and helping people park, says that the quality of the product speaks for itself, and word of mouth helps too. He cited the Vietnamese saying, “If something has an aroma, people will smell it” – and come running.
According to Thin, the real secret to the restaurant’s success has more to do with a customer-oriented mindset than the novelty of pho with stir-fried beef.
“We do business with our hearts,” he said. “Our priority is pleasing our customers, not making money.”
After our first meeting, Thin insisted that I return at 8am the following day to have breakfast with him. Over hot bowls of Pho Thin’s one and only meal option, the boss told me that he’d come up with his signature innovation on the standard pho as a 16-year-old tinkering around in the kitchen.
Forty years later, Thin’s artist children have little interest in taking over the restaurant after he retires, but he says he may pass it on to his many nieces and nephews, who can be found scurrying around the restaurant carrying trays of brimming bowls or platters of noodles.
Once we’d finished our coffees, I finally begged off to get to work. Thin handed me the sketch he’d drawn of me earlier, shook my hand and invited me to come back anytime. I told him he could count on it.