Where: Pho Thin, 389 Lonsdale Street Shop C (enter via Hardware Lane) Melbourne
What: Best pho in the CBD
Who: Greek Goddess, Sashimi Slanderer
Bloat score: 2 – The belt had to be completely removed
Before Pho Thin materialised on the scene, my go-tos for phở in the city were Pho Nom and I Love Pho (both in Emporium) and Pho Dzung City Noodle Shop (an old haunt with one of my favourite chilli oils). That will most likely change with Pho Thin, partly because it’s so good and partly because unlike the first two, enjoying it doesn’t require superior balancing skills as you manoeuvre through hordes of people with piping hot bowls of broth careening on unsteady trays.
Pho Thin is a branch of a tiny Hanoi phở shop – the first outside Asia and only the second outside Vietnam. Husband-and-wife team Nguyen Lam and Duyen Le Ky, originally from Saigon, visited phở shops around Vietnam to find their favourite and upon finding it in Pho Thin, convinced the founder to allow them to open up a branch in Australia. One of the main differences between the Australian Pho Thin and the one in Hanoi is the disavowal of MSG – a downright shame if you ask me. I will fight you at a party if you’re still touting the long-debunked view that MSG causes headaches.
I visited Pho Thin with Greek Goddess – a linen-clad cutie who is both of Greek provenance and a frequent visitor to her homeland – and Sashimi Slanderer, an old-timer on here who’s known for her avowed refusal to eat anything raw (read here and here for her previous appearances on the blog). We were told long queues appear outside Pho Thin during lunch hour, so we visited early and got there slightly after 12 – more than half of the restaurant was full, but we didn’t struggle to get a seat outside, slightly squishy though it was.
Choices on the menu were three beef phởs, one chicken phở, one mixed beef and chicken phở, and a tofu and vegetable phở (though note that the broth used is still beef). I chose Pho Thin’s signature “stir-fried” beef phở, where skirt steak is stir-fried in garlic before it’s added to the broth. This was tasty – the beef wasn’t fried to the point of being crisp and retained its pinkness and springiness. The broth itself, which is cooked overnight for 12 hours, was deeply aromatic and steeped in ginger and shallots – instead of the self-serve side plates of bean sprouts and Vietnamese mint, which I’ve since learned is characteristic of phở in the south of Vietnam, Pho Thin’s broth arrived layered with chopped spring onions and coriander only. Original Pho Thin founder Nguyen Trong Thin must hate bean sprouts as much as me because he’s been recorded saying it “ruins the broth”.
There was a housemade vinegary hot chilli sauce on the table, which I ladled on to each spoonful of rice noodles to a pleasantly fiery effect – my nose was definitely running, which is more than I can say after trying Daughter-In-Law’s pork neck vindaloo. There are also pickled garlic slices on the table for those who want even more FODMAPs in their broth.
Greek Goddess ordered the tofu and vegetable phở. She’s not vegetarian and so didn’t mind the fact that beef broth was used – she commented that the broth wasn’t as sweet as other phởs she’d tried.
Sashimi Slanderer ordered the signature “stir-fried” beef phở but added vegetables to hers – a good idea if you want the nutrients of the vegetable phở but also Pho Thin’s signature garlic-sautéed beef. Unlike me, Sashimi Slanderer missed the addition of bean sprouts and Vietnamese mint in the northern-style phởs, particularly Vietnamese mint, but really enjoyed her broth regardless. She also added cut red chilli and the hot sauce directly into her broth, significantly upping the heat quotient.
Diners around us had also ordered Vietnamese donuts to dip into their broth. Vietnamese donut is the equivalent of the Chinese donut, a golden brown deep-fried strip of dough eaten with broths such as Malaysia’s pork soup bak kut teh. I steered clear of it this time because I didn’t want a four-bloat outcome, tasty as it is.
I can’t enjoy a bowl of phở without finishing all my broth, which is exactly what I did at Pho Thin – which left me with two bloats, because commercial soup stocks aren’t permitted on a low-histamine diet and I can’t eat a lot of the ingredients used to make it, like shallots. Not that it matters – I’ll definitely be back to either have the stir-fried beef phở again, or to try the red wine beef phở where beef is marinated in red wine overnight and boiled until soft. Either way, I’ll also be ordering the Vietnamese donut to dunk into my broth.
Pho Thin is open every day from 10.30am to 8.30pm.