Monday, December 7, 2009
Pho Huong in The Junction
One hundred and one years ago, Junction City became a part of Toronto. So called because it is the junction of four railway lines (called the West Toronto Diamond), The Junction is one of my favourite Toronto neighbourhoods.
The majority of my Junction excitement exists between Clendenan Avenue and Keele, but officially The Junction is situated north of Annette, south of the Canadian Pacific Railway corridor, east of Runnymede and west of the Canadian National Railway corridor. Walking along Dundas West, you will see old pubs, antiques and art in window displays and cozy cafes and grocery stores offering fair trade and organic products for Junction residents. The Junction community is young (38% of the population is between 25 and 44 years old), unpretentiously hip and environmentally aware – obvious by the constant bustle inside The Sweet Potato, the Macintosh laptop crowd at Crema Coffee Co., fair trade coffee supporters at Agora and the stroller traffic in and out of The Beet.
In the centre of The Junction, on Pacific Avenue is Pho Huong – my favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto.
When we arrive at Pho Huong, my friend and I are always seated in the same place. There are always a few tables taken, but ours always seems to be available and calling us in from the cold. It is a comforting addition to our routine-laden pho experience. We sit along the sand-coloured wall, under brown lamps, I face the bog windows looking onto Pacific Avenue and my friend faces towards the kitchen (and television screen that is set to CP24 at all times). We don’t mind the TV, and I honestly didn’t even mind when I saw the chef smoking, once (in fact, I giggled with the excitement that my food may be nicotine infused – but alas, there was no sign of fumigation when our food arrived).
On my first visit to Pho Huong I ordered P07 Pho Tai Bo Vien (Rare beef and beef ball with rice noodle soup, $5.75 for a small – and a small is large enough). How much I enjoy my Pho Tai Bo Vien is exactly proportionate to the probability of my return. I examine the broth – clear check tastes homemade check and then I try the noodles (they cannot be too soggy from the hot broth). The beef balls have to be flavourful and juicy and the rare beef has to be rare. As long as I get a chili and a lime with my bean sprouts and the sprouts don’t look as if they are mourning their salmonella brothers from 2005, then I’m not that fussy.
When I finished my first bowl of pho at Pho Huong, I did a little tick and tock like a metronome while grinning madly. This is a drunk-with-happiness-dance that I do throughout and after a good meal. I can’t help it, but if I am eating somewhere with dimmed lights and classical music, I try to keep the swaying ritenuto.
Last month I ate out eleven times; Five times at Pho Huong. I have read through the menu of 99 items numerous times and have found my favourites. Once I find a new favourite, it is all I think about until the imaginary white noodles have grabbed hold of me like sea creatures and pulled me back to the restaurant, where I sit down and look at the menu knowing already what I need to eat; It’s a very serious, frequent problem that has prevented me from trying all 99 dishes in the timeframe I would have liked.
When a craving for Bun pulls me to Pho Huong, none of the other menu items will get a chance. I always order the same: B05 Bun Cha Gio, Thit Nuong, Chao Tom (Spring rolls, grilled pork and shrimp on sugar cane with vermicelli, $8). The big bowl arrives quickly and I go straight for the brown crispy bits clinging to the thin slices of pork. Then I rip up my mint and sprinkle it from a gratuitous height – the flare adds more flavour, I think – and squeeze about a tablespoon of sriracha into a corner for my noodles. I pick up my shrimp skewer first, acknowledging and rewarding ‘him’ (my food is always a him or her) for being so delicious. I LOVE the shrimp skewers here; Moist, a bit firm and bursting with flavour, these little hand-shaped cylinders of pureed shrimp are uniform in texture and a pleasure to eat. Even the sugar cane can be chewed and sucked on until all that is left is a little fibrous stick. By the time I finish my Chow Tom, my spring roll isn’t quite so hot and can be devoured quickly with a drink in hand. The noodles are perfectly cooked and only take up the right side of the bowl. On the left, fresh shredded iceberg lettuce helps me forget I’m eating close to 90 grams of carbohydrates.
Up until OSAP began knocking, my friend and I would order appetizers. They are delicious and inexpensive, but they usually unnecessary depending on what you order afterwards. Oh, and that’s another thing with Pho Huong; after you have ordered, and you are reading your newspaper (provided by Pho Huong), don’t expect to look up to the waitress or waiter bringing you your appetizer. Sometimes we get the appetizer first but usually everything comes at once. Not knowing whether it was our fault for mistaking a main for an appetizer or if the kitchen just didn’t ‘do’ appetizers first, we drew a line on our sheet between one dish and the two below it. It didn’t work. I really don’t mind, but it is a struggle for me to be faced with three dishes at once and expected to eat in a methodical or calm way.
Anyways, here are the appetizers I have tried:
A01 Cha Gio (Spring rolls, $3.75). Packed with thin strips of carrots and noodles and who knows what else, these packed spring rolls are delivered (very) hot, crispy and perfectly seasoned.
A07 Goi Xoai Tom (Mango salad with shrimp, $6.50). The bright orange mango is always sweet and ripe and is dressed with a perfectly sour dressing. The shrimp are plentiful and delicate. On top of the salad is my favourite treat: fried slices of garlic that add the perfect bitter crunch. I usually get this salad if I am starving and also getting Bun.
Under Banh Chaou (Steam rice flour cake and rolls), we also order the following as appetizers:
R01 Banh Cuon Cha Lua (Steam rice flour rolls with Vietnamese sausage, $5 small /$6 large). The slipperly, soft rice paper is rolled loosely around the Vietnamese pork sausage (cha lua) and placed in rows, buried under a pile of gently steamed bean sprouts, coriander leaves and those little garlic chips I love so much. I recommend a small because if you are also ordering noodles you will fall into a carb coma.
R02 Banh Cuon Cha Lua, Banh Cong (Steam rice flour rolls with Vietnamese sausage and shrimp cake, $6.50 small/$7.50 large) is the same as R01, but with the addition of a muffin-size shrimp cake. (You can also order three Banh Cong as an appetizer, $6). The cake is undoubtedly deep-fried (cooked in a special ladle to give it that muffin shape) and comes golden brown with a whole shrimp (shell too) fossilized on top. When you break open the cake, steam wafts up like a magic show to expose the golden centre of mung beans, shredded taro and green onions.
Sufficiently full just thinking about all of those steamy, savoury apps, I will move on to the other dishes I have tried:
Under Dac Biet (Special, yes, singular) there is a list of six soups and then D05 Bun Cha Ha Noi (Hanoi style vermicelli, $8). A little bowl of clear – slightly greasy looking- dipping sauce (nuoc cham) is filled with squares of bacon, shredded pork and carrot coins. Served with it, a bowl of plain rice noodles and a plate of lettuce and fresh herbs. Despite the oiliness of the sauce, this dish is light and a tasty change from pho.
I once ordered C12 Com Ga Xao Xa (chicken lemongrass on rice, $7.50). I was pretty disappointed with my artificial lemongrass-tasting overcooked chicken, served with rice and not much else. I haven’t ordered any Com (rice dishes) since, but I often see regulars enjoying C03 Com Tam Suon Nuong, Bi, Cha (Grilled pork chop, shredded pork, egg pancake on broken rice, $7.50).
And speaking of pancake: My favourite healthy option is not on the take-out menu. Banh Xeo (probably around $7 but I can’t be sure) is giant, crispy, omelet-looking goodness filled with bean sprouts and shrimp (on the menu it says ‘vegetable pancake’ so if you’re a vegetarian you might want to mention that you don’t eat shrimp). The pancake actually has no egg in it at all; it is made with coconut milk and (you guessed it!) rice flour. Its sunny yellow colour is from a bit of turmeric. On the other half of the plate there is a stack of fresh lettuce and Thai basil. I usually tear up the lettuce first and then use my chopsticks to wrap the lettuce around pieces of pancake and then very carefully dip my makeshift wrap into some nuoc cham.
In the process of re-reading all the pho options (there are 16) I came across P13 Pho Tai, Ve Don (small $5.50/large $6.50/ extra large $7). The English translation is: Rare beef, Frank with rice noodle soup. Upon further research I have concluded that by Frank they meant flank. I was a bit worried because once I ordered a large pho by accident (or by guttonos optimism, not sure which) and asked for the rest to go. Bad idea. When we got home, my friend and I opened up the bag containing two styrofoam containers. One of them was labeled “female”. We lifted the lid in excitement only to find my noodles had dissolved into a gluttonous mess.
Craving something hearty, my friend once ordered BK01 Banh Mi Bo Kho (Beef stew served with bread, $7). The stew was dark brown, rich with warm spices and served with a warm Vietnamese baguette (banh mi). It was really good and throughout the meal I offered bites of my bun, in exchange for some stew. The serving was smaller than the giant bowls of pho, but by the time the plate had been wiped spotless with some fresh, warm bread, both of us had rosy cheeks and warm bellies.
The drinks aren’t on the take out menu but they are available for take-out and I can guarantee they are delicious. I usually get one of the following: Sapota shake, Soursop shake, fresh lemonade, lychee juice or coconut juice (comes with the bits of coconut as well). The two shakes I mentioned are the best ones; the others taste slightly watery. All the drinks are about $3.50.
Despite the unique timing for appetizers, the occasional spelling mistake and including meat in a dish labeled "vegetable pancake", Pho Huong is my favourite Vietnamese restaurant.