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It’s Pho-nominal

Pho in VietnamObviously I wasn’t going to leave Vietnam without having pho.  I’m not a crazy person.

I didn’t know this before getting here, but there are actually two types of pho: there’s the beef version, called pho bo.  That’s the one that we’re more familiar with back home.  There’s also a chicken version called pho ga.

I tried both, of course.  Again, I’m not a crazy person.

First up is pho ga, the chicken version, which I had at a restaurant called Pho Lam Nam Ngu in Hanoi.

Pho in VietnamTopped with green onion and some sliced chicken, and served with a very generous amount of slightly mushy noodles, this was quite tasty.

It’s essentially the platonic ideal of a bowl of chicken soup; it had an exceptionally clean, simple (and delicious) flavour.  It’s tasty on its own, but once you jazz it up with a spritz of lime and a bit of the chili sauce they’ve got on the table, it really starts to sing.

Pho in Vietnam

I wish the noodles had been a bit firmer, but all in all this was a satisfying bowl of noodle soup.

The second restaurant was called Pho Gia Truyen.  It’s super popular.  The first time I showed up, the place was an absolute mad house; I came back the next day right when it opened, and there was still a line, but it was a bit more reasonable.

Pho in Vietnam

It’s packed for a reason.  The soup had such an intensely satisfying beefy flavour — with just enough spicing to compliment it but not get in the way — that I didn’t even bother putting any chili sauce or any of the other condiments on the table.  I didn’t want to mess with it.  It was perfection.

Pho in Vietnam

It was topped with a surprisingly generous amount of thinly-sliced beef; that beef was bananas.  It was super tender, with a shockingly rich flavour.  This was obviously some top-shelf stuff, because it tasted good.

Pho in Vietnam

The noodles were pretty great, too.  It’s easily the best bowl of pho that I’ve ever had.

Pho in Vietnam

I think I might have actually ruined pho for myself, because I’m never going to be able to find anything this good back home.  Oh well.

Delicious Fish Noodle Soup

Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi, VietnamWhen I sat down to eat fish noodle soup (a Vietnamese dish called bun ca) at around eleven in the morning, I started to wonder: is this a mistake?  Maybe eating a potentially very pungent fishy soup for breakfast isn’t a great idea?

Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi, Vietnam

Well, it turns out it absolutely was a great idea, because the bun ca that they served at a placed called Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi was phenomenal.

Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi, Vietnam

The broth, in particular, was something special: it was mildly seafoody, with a zingy, almost sour flavour that was given some added depth thanks to the fresh herbs, particularly dill.

The chewy noodles and crispy veggies worked great together, and there was a very generous amount of fried fish chunks.

Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi, Vietnam

They must have fried the hell out of those things, because they somehow managed to retain their crunchy exterior right down to the last piece.  And yet the inside was tender and flaky.  I don’t know how they did it, but it was pretty amazing.

A Delicious Noodle Soup (that isn’t pho)

Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao in Ho Chi Minh, VietnamPho may be the thousand pound gorilla of Vietnamese noodle soups — it’s the one that pretty much every single person on the planet has heard of — but it’s certainly not the only one.

Take, for example, bun bo hue. I just had a bowl of it at Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao, and it made a strong case that there should be room in your life for more than one noodle soup from Vietnam.

It’s got a zingy, ever-so-slightly sour broth that’s really satisfying; it’s much more of a face-punch of flavour than the comparatively subtle pho.

Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

It comes with various sausagey mystery meats that are all quite tasty, and a couple of plates worth of veggies and hot peppers to customize your bowl.

I should note that those peppers are inferno hot; I added most of them to the soup, which was probably a mistake. The peppers themselves were fiery little spice-bombs, and they quickly infused the broth with their intense heat. I have a fairly high tolerance for spicy foods, but even I found this to be a bit much.  I was getting pretty sweaty by the time I finished the bowl.

On Experiencing Delightful Sticker Shock in Vietnam

Vietnam foodI just had my first couple of meals in Ho Chi Minh.   For lunch, I stumbled across a tiny little restaurant that specializes in broken rice.  It was a pretty basic version of this dish: it’s a fairly substantial pile of rice (made with, as the name suggests, broken grains of rice) topped with grilled pork, greens and some crispy bits (I have no idea what these were but they were super tasty).  It also came with a really satisfying bowl of vegetable-packed soup.

Vietnam food

The price?  30,000 dong, or about $1.66 Canadian.  That is obscenely cheap for such a satisfying, delicious lunch.

Vietnam food

For dinner I went to a place called Bun Thit Nuong Chi Tuyen.  Their specialty is a dish I’ve had countless times back home that features a mix of rice noodles, pork, veggies, and herbs, with a spring roll on the side.  You top the whole thing with a sweet fish sauce (there was also a container of fiery red chilies at the table that I’ve never seen back home; it really kicked things up and was a pretty amazing addition).

Vietnam food

This is my go-to dish at Vietnamese restaurants, and this was the best version of it that I’ve had by far.  The noodles had a really great chewy texture, and the balance of flavours was incredible.  Back home, sometimes the herbs are a bit overwhelming, or the proportion of vegetables is off, but here everything was just right.

Vietnam food

And don’t even get me started on the spring roll, which was absolutely perfect.

And you know what else was perfect?  The price.  47,000 dong, which works out to $2.60 Canadian.  It’s suddenly becoming very clear to me why this place is so popular with younger travelers.  You can make very little money last a long time here.

And a bonus at the noodle joint: this almost improbably adorable puppy, who was sleeping on a chair just outside of the restaurant.

Vietnam food

Cheesy, Noodley Goodness

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong KongSometimes you don’t need anything fancy or gourmet; sometimes you just want a bunch of cheese, noodles, and tender pork.

And that’s exactly what you’ll get at Sun Kee Cheese Noodle: pure, unadulterated comfort food.

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong Kong

I mean, just look at that.  It’s just a big old glop of creamy, cheesy sauce on top of a mound of noodles and unctuous pork cheek.

I think you get a better idea of what’s going on here after the noodles have been mixed with the sauce.

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong Kong

It’s so good.  The noodles themselves are nothing special — I’m pretty sure they’re just instant noodles — but that sauce is rich and creamy, with a satisfyingly sharp cheesy flavour.  The tender slices of pork are a perfect accompaniment.

It’s kinda like mac and cheese, only with noodles instead of macaroni, and with big pieces of tasty pork.

Sun Kee Cheese Noodle in Hong Kong

Hidden away at the back of a sketchy little mall, the place pretty much defines the term “hole in the wall.”  But when the food is this good, I’ll eat it in a broom closet.  Just gimme that bowl of cheesy, creamy noodles.  I don’t care where I eat it.

On Eating Michelin-Starred Roast Goose in Hong Kong

Michelin-starred roast goose in Hong KongOne of the things Hong Kong is known for is its various roasted meats — goose in particular.  I checked out a couple of goose joints that happen to have a Michelin star.  Yeah, they take their goose pretty seriously here.

The first one, Kam’s Roast Goose, was easily the most popular of the two.  It draws some pretty intense crowds, with a 40 minute wait on this particular evening.

Michelin-starred roast goose in Hong Kong

The goose here was seriously tender with a really great flavour, though the skin wasn’t nearly as crispy as you’d hope.  It was quite good, but probably not worth the crazy wait.  The Michelin star seems like overkill.

Michelin-starred roast goose in Hong Kong

The second place was called Yat Lok Restaurant; it definitely wasn’t as slick as Kam’s, but I think it was the better of the two.

Michelin-starred roast goose in Hong Kong

The goose was equally tender and flavourful, and the skin had that amazing level of crispiness that you’re hoping for (though getting it in noodle soup — while delicious — probably wasn’t the best idea, because it quickly sogged up that great crispy skin).

Michelin-starred roast goose in Hong Kong

Italy + Japan = Delicious

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, JapanThere’s a place in Kagoshima called Tmtrmnstr that sells tomato ramen, which is basically like a bizarre amalgam between a standard bowl of ramen, and spaghetti with tomato sauce.

I really did not have high hopes for this — I tried it more out of a morbid curiosity than anything else.  I just assumed it wasn’t going to be very good.

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

But surprisingly enough?  It was delicious.  It was creamy and rich like a standard bowl of ramen, but with a garlicky, tomato sauce flavour.  I guess it was essentially like a tomato soup — but way better than any tomato soup I’ve had before.

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

You choose from various add-ons; they recommend parmegiano regiano cheese.

Sure, parmesan on ramen — why not?

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

The cheese really enhances it, melting and merging with the noodles in a gooey, cheesy mess.  It’s shockingly great.

A Face-Punch of Flavour

Hanamaruken in Osaka, JapanOne of the many (many many) things I love about ramen is how much variety you get from bowl to bowl.  There are so many different styles and types and varieties of ramen that what seems like it should be a simple dish (it’s just noodles and soup) has so much to offer.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

There are some bowls of ramen that are subtle and light; on the other end of the spectrum is the bowl of slow-cooked pork rib ramen I just had from Hanamaruken in Osaka.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

The broth here is unctuously, mouth-coatingly rich (though it thankfully never crosses the line into gravy soup territory).  It’s also intensely flavoured, with a seafoody punch rounding out the in-your-face porkiness.  There’s absolutely nothing subtle here; the flavour grabs you by the collar and screams in your face.  And yet it’s not overbearing or one-note.

But what really makes this ramen noteworthy is the slow-cooked pork rib on top, subbing in for the typical chashu.  It’s a big old hunk of deboned ribs that’s been slow-cooked until it’s so tender you can just pull chunks off with your chopsticks.  It’s also browned on the griddle to give it some additional flavour/texture.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

It’s so incredibly tender that even the cartilage has rendered down into a delicious, porky goo.  And yet the meat itself still has texture — it’s not mushy at all, which can sometimes happen with slow-cooked meat like this.

Worth the Wait

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, JapanWhen I’m searching for the best food in a particular area, I’m always hoping for a clear consensus.  If you come across recommendations for the same restaurant over and over again, then you can be reasonably assured that it’s going to be good.

Well, there’s very little doubt about it: Ramen Yashichi serves what everyone seems to agree is the best ramen in Osaka.  And holy crap, the place draws the crowds to prove it.

I showed up at around noon on a Friday; they have a system where they hand you a ticket that tells you when to come back, and I figured it’d be a half hour later.  Maybe an hour.

It told me to come back at 3:56 — almost four hours later.

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, Japan

Well, okay.  At least I won’t have to line up.

Except I absolutely did have to line up — I showed up at the allotted time to find about a dozen people waiting outside, so I spent about half an hour waiting to get in.  Then I got in and there was another line.  It took about ten more minutes.

But then I sat down and got to try the ramen, and it was like, yep.  I get it.  It’s a chicken-based shoyu ramen, and it was absurdly good.  It was a bit more oniony than normal — I’m not a fan of raw onion, so that was unfortunate — but other than that it was one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve had since coming to Japan (which means it was one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had).

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, Japan

I mentioned that the mediocre bowl of ramen I had in Dotonbori was just one-note salty; the thing I love about the best bowls of ramen is that they seem simple, but there’s so much depth and complexity to their flavour.  That’s absolutely the case here.  With every mouthful, you discover something new.  It’s magical.

Feels Like the Very First Time

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, JapanThis is actually my second time in Osaka — the first time was about ten years ago.

While walking around Dotonbori, I came across a ramen joint with a giant cartoon dragon on the outside, and I suddenly got hit by a freight train of nostalgia.

Not only had I eaten here on my previous trip, but — and I’m not 100% sure about this, but I’m fairly confident — this is where I had my first bowl of real, non-instant ramen (you have to remember that the explosion of ramen joints in Toronto has only been in the last few years — rewind to a decade ago, and ramen was much more of a rarity in the GTA).

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

Though ramen is one of my favourite dishes now, it certainly wasn’t at the time, and this restaurant failed to ignite any sort of love for the dish.  Did I just not know how to appreciate a good bowl of ramen?

Nope, it’s pretty lousy (as you’d expect from a place with a big cartoon dragon mascot in the most touristy part of town).  The noodles were actually pretty good, but the broth was just one-note salty, and the pork was dry.

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

Still, the nostalgia!  Plus, how often to you get to revisit the place where you first tried one of your favourite meals?  Totally worth it.