Fresh, clean, authentic and good value.
Stephen and Juliette Wall fell in love with pho after a trip to Vietnam and came home and built a brand around it. Their first restaurant opened in London in 2005 and they now have branches all over the country. Pho reached Birmingham in 2015 when the successful Vietnamese street food chain opened a branch in Grand Central.
Like the Walls, we became pho-lovers following a trip to Vietnam. We knew about Pho but were put off by our snobbish assumptions about the likely poor quality of chain restaurant food. How wrong we were!
Situated on the upper mezzanine, overlooking the concourse, the restaurant is always busy. Expect to queue, but turnover is fast so it won’t be for long. As we waited, our fears about the food were instantly dispelled as we watched a couple of young chefs deftly rolling a batch of handmade spring rolls. The menu is simple. A few appetisers and sides, broken rice, a couple of additional rice and noodle dishes, salads and pho, lots of pho!
I started with summer rolls. Fresh, cool, crunchy vegetables wrapped in a soft, wafer-thin rice paper with nuoc cham dipping sauce, a mixture of fish sauce and lime. My partner had light, crispy chicken wings with sriracha, a fierce garlic and chilli paste. We both had pho to follow. He had spicy chicken and I tofu and mushroom, big bowls of steaming sweet, sour and salty broth, and soft slippery noodles. You can choose between flat pho or round bun noodles. Personally, I think the flat noodles are easier to negotiate with chopsticks reducing the splash factor.
The selection of condiments on the table is essential to the experience. A key principle of Vietnamese cooking is to make your food taste the way you want it to by adding sauces, garnishes and seasoning. Options include fish sauce, sriracha and homemade garlic and chilli paste or vinegar. Every bowl of pho is served with a side of fresh chillies, herbs and beans sprouts.
To drink, my partner had Saigon Beer and I had mint tea. Handfuls of fresh mint packed into a mug and covered with boiling water to create an explosion of palate-cleansing flavour. My real guilty pleasure in Vietnam was the coffee. Rich, strong coffee served with condensed milk in a battered metal mini drip-filter over a glass. Not how I would usually have my coffee, but utterly delicious and indulgent. Even here, Pho did not fail. Apart from the pristine, shiny drip-filter, I could have been back in Vietnam.
The service is good and the staff friendly and helpful, especially for diners who are new to Vietnamese cuisine. Pho is a fast food concept and there is a certain expectation that you won’t want to hang around. Our bill was presented to us before we had a chance to order our coffees.
If I was to choose one word to sum up Pho it would be authentic. Everything smelled and tasted just as I remembered it in Vietnam. The two Vietnamese girls at the table next to us, live-streaming footage of their food back home, were a testament to that.
Overall Value 4/5