Not so Fab: Phobulous

Before jumping on the LRT to tackle the Home & Garden Show last Sunday, Annie and I met up for lunch at Phobulous. Neither of us had been there, but we’d heard quite positive things about the restaurant prior to our visit.

Our first impressions started off right – the interior was bright and cheery, and I was immediately drawn to the colourful paper lanterns hung from the ceiling.

Phobulous

Lanterns

That feeling didn’t last for long, however. We sat ourselves at the one remaining table (the only other seats were at the bar), and the server, with nary a greeting, wordlessly dropped off menus at our table and left. Our subsequent exchanges with her were similarly curt and perfunctory; it seemed like the last thing she wanted to do was interact with us at all.

In the face of such indifferent service, we were hoping the food would help balance out the experience. I liked the approach they took on their menu: dish categories were broken down and explained, so that those new to Vietnamese cuisine wouldn’t feel excluded. I also appreciated their cheeky page of pho puns (including “pho real” and “phonomenon”). I decided to order the “phovarite” with rare beef and brisket ($8.95). Annie decided to stick with bun, and chose the vermicelli bowl with grilled beef and spring rolls ($10.25).

My pho was disappointing, especially because it was one of their namesake dishes. Not only was the broth salty, but the small amount of meat provided was overcooked. The brisket was the better of the two, and the rare beef was anything but.

Phobulous

Pho with rare beef and brisket

Annie fared better with her vermicelli bowl. She commented that the noodles were more moist than bowls she typically encounters, perhaps due to the inclusion of more shredded vegetables. She enjoyed it.

Phobulous

Bun with grilled beef and spring rolls

With so few Vietnamese restaurants in the area, there’s no doubt Phobulous fills a need. But with unremarkable service and inconsistent food, it won’t be a restaurant I’ll be seeking out again anytime soon.

Phobulous
8701 109 Street
(780) 988-2696
Monday-Saturday 11am-10pm, Sundays 11am-9pm

A Family Favourite: Cô Dô Huê

Every pho enthusiast has their favourite. Mine happens to be Pho Tau Bay for many reasons, but at the top: they are efficient and consistent. It definitely helps that it is the only dish they serve, so due attention can be paid to the soup base.

That said, I’m always open to trying new places, and my parents were eager to share their favourite with the rest of my family. Consequently, when Amanda was back in town in mid-November for her convocation, we headed to Cô Dô Huê one chilly evening for dinner.

Located in a non-descript strip mall in Castledowns Pembina, I would say that Cô Dô Huê could have the status of a hidden gem…except for the fact they had nearly a full house on a random Tuesday.

The interior was clean, pained a restrained shade of green. The patterned, upholstered chairs dated the space a bit, but I did appreciate the booths, including a large, circular one that we eventually settled into. It felt like we could’ve held court on the dining room!

Cô Dô Huê

The family!

The first thing I noticed about the menu were the prices – pho (albeit no size options to choose from) were priced at $9.95, about $2 more than the Chinatown restaurants like Pho Tau Bay that I more often frequent. Still, it was the mission of the day to try it, so both Felicia and I ordered our standard bowls: special beef noodle soup for her, and medium rare beef for me.

Mack, who typically shies away from soup, was convinced to select the spicy beef noodle soup (which a few of my parents’ friends claim is the best in the city). Amanda opted for her usual vermicelli bowl, and my parents ordered rice plates. We also agreed to share green onion cakes ($4.95) at my urging.

Cô Dô Huê

Three colour rice plate

Cô Dô Huê

Four colour rice plate (my dad couldn’t stop raving about the grilled shrimp on sugarcane)

Cô Dô Huê

Vermicelli bowl with grilled pork

Food came out quickly, in spite of the full room. The green onion cakes were a hit with the table, fried to a golden perfection. They were even salty enough for me!

Cô Dô Huê

Green onion cakes

The pho servings were large, as expected (Felicia barely got halfway through her noodles). The broth was clear, imbued with the familiar flavours of anise and cloves, among others. My beef, shaved thin, also remained tender throughout, and didn’t overcook. The only contentious spot was Felicia’s tendon; it was undercooked, and thus didn’t melt in her mouth as is her preference.

Cô Dô Huê

Special beef noodle soup

Cô Dô Huê

Medium rare beef noodle soup

Mack also enjoyed his soup (hallelujah!), spicy and full of texture. More importantly, he mentioned that he’d be open to having pho in the future!

Cô Dô Huê

Spicy beef noodle soup

Service as a whole was great – servers were attentive, and returned numerous times to check on us and to refill our water. Although I wouldn’t hesitate to dine at Cô Dô Huê again, its location would prevent me from doing so at a regular frequency. But you can bet you’ll be seeing my parents there again soon!

Cô Dô Huê
12819 140 Avenue
(780) 475-2660

Great for the Neighbourhood: Pho Huong & Mama Pizza

Although there are many restaurants within walking distance of my office, some which are quite good (Padmanadi, Basil Leaf and Pho Tau Bay included), when winter descends, I often wish for a closer alternative that is equally consistent. The day may have finally arrived!

Ellen’s Aunt and Uncle, Ken and Lisa Quach, took over Pho Huong & Mama Pizza (10531 107 Avenue, 780-422-6262), which reopened on September 30. Prior to this overhaul, I hadn’t set foot in the establishment – coworkers had warned me that it wasn’t exactly the most welcoming place.

Now, Pho Huong & Mama Pizza is a gem in the neighbourhood, reminding me very much of Absolutely Edibles on 118 Avenue. Ken, a carpenter by trade, redid the entire interior, installing the wood fixtures he built himself, and lining the walls with cozy but classy booths. I especially loved the photos of farmers with their fresh produce along the wall – a visual link to the ingredients that inspire the cuisine.

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

Interior (thanks to Suman who lent me her camera)

It has always been Lisa’s goal to open a restaurant. Having perfected her recipes after years of cooking (including that of fish sauce!), her dream has finally come true. Although Vietnamese cuisine is Lisa’s forte, because of the neighbourhood’s taste for pizza (they still get calls for delivery), they maintained the pizza side of the menu; hence the two names of the restaurant.

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

New bar and flat screens

A few of my coworkers had lunch with Ellen at Pho Huong & Mama Pizza on Tuesday. The patrons that were inside were already tucking into their dishes – and there was not one pizza in sight.

As Ellen knows, my personal “litmus test” for Vietnamese restaurants is an order of green onion cakes followed by an order of pho. The green onion cakes ($4.25) were golden and crispy, but weren’t quite salty enough for me (but then again, I prefer my green onion cakes very salty!).

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

Green onion cakes

The beef brisket pho ($8 for a large bowl) was absolutely a standout. The broth had great depth of flavour – meaty and substantial, fragrant but not overpowering. The brisket was served rare (just the way I like it), and cooked to shredded perfection in the hot soup. It was also a huge serving – I am rarely defeated by pho, but I was that day.

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

Pho with brisket

The rest of our table ordered a wide range of dishes, from grilled pork chop and grilled chicken on rice to the 5 colour vermicelli bowl to the seafood rice noodle soup. Everyone was very happy with their dishes, and Astrid wasn’t even able to finish her serving!

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

Grilled pork chop rice plate ($8.75)

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

Grilled chicken rice plate ($8.95)

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

5 colour vermicelli bowl ($10.50)

Pho Huong/Mama Pizza

Seafood rice soup ($8.00 for small)

Businesses like Pho Huong & Mama Pizza are key pieces of the revitalization puzzle, they can become a draw to residents and visitors alike, invigorating the area in the process. I can only hope more enterprising people like Ken and Lisa choose to invest in Central McDougall – and in the process, we may get even more tasty restaurants in the neighbourhood.

Location, Location: Viet Huong Noodle House

In September, I noticed that Viet Huong Noodle House would be moving a few blocks east into the Chinatown space that had been vacated by Hoang Long. Knowing a makeover of their restaurant on 107 Avenue was in dire need, it seemed a move into a more modern and frequented street would do them well. After a lunch date with Jill and Swamy at the new Viet Huong last week, I’m happy to say the change was definitely for the better!

The walls, a deep, autumnal yellow, were left untouched from the previous tenants, as was the furniture, and both were a definite improvement over the dated interior of their former location. Both the flat screen television and fish tank of blood parrots migrated here, and the bright tank in particular looked very much at home in a space bathed in natural light.

The restaurant was also notably half-full, but it didn’t drastically affect our wait time. The pho was good – the broth was the same – solid, but not spectacular – and the serving was as generous as I remembered. Of course, food somehow always tastes better with good company, and this instance was no exception!

Viet Huong

Beef noodle soup with beef balls

Viet Huong

Spicy seafood noodle soup

Viet Huong

Chicken with cashews over rice

It’s always nice to have more options in Chinatown, especially because of the unpredictable hours of some restaurants nearby like Pho Tau Bay. I’ll be back!

Just Not Memorable: Pho Anh Dao

At the rate we’re going, Dickson and I will be sampling pho restaurants into the next decade. With new establishments popping up all the time (such as Pho King on Alberta Avenue and Phonatics in the north end), old favourites yet to sample (like Pho & Bun), and restaurants changing hands, it’s guaranteed pho lovers will always have another place to compare to their stalwart choice.

We ended up at Pho Anh Dao two weeks ago, which was previously Le Family Vietnamese. As with many restaurants in Chinatown, a coherent “décor” was non existent, though there was a sizable television screen set up at the rear of the restaurant.

Interior

As soon as we walked inside, eager staff greeted us and set us up with menus and tea (we were only one of two tables during our visit). We ordered our usual bowls (special for Dickson, $7.95/large and medium beef and flank, $6.95/small, for me), as well as spring roll appetizers.

Dickson was quite impressed with the spring rolls (he can be considered a connoisseur of the deep-fried starters), and while they were crispy and well-prepared, I am biased to thinking that my Mum’s spring rolls are the best in town.

Spring rolls

As for the pho itself, while the broth was well-seasoned, it lacked depth. The flank was luxuriously fatty (which some may find disconcerting, but I just lap it up), while the medium beef was anything but – tough and chewy, it was difficult to finish the serving.

Medium rare beef and beef flank noodle soup

Special noodle soup

In the end, Pho Anh Dao didn’t provide us with a terrible experience, but it wasn’t a particularly memorable one either. While I’d be willing to give them another shot, Pho Tau Bay will continue to be my go-to pho destination.

Pho Anh Dao
10548 97 Street
(780) 426-7774
Open 10am-9pm everyday except Wednesday (open 10am-4pm)

Generous Portions: Viet Huong Noodle House

I’ve walked past Viet Huong Noodle House on 107 Avenue too many times to count, but never really had the desire to try it. Being just a stone’s throw away from my office, however, meant it was just a matter of time before I did.

I met up with Dickson for lunch there this week. First impressions were not great – between the turquoise linoleum floor and worn, mismatched furniture, it was clear the space needed a complete overhaul. The LCD television screen (streaming a Vietnamese music concert much too loudly) and fish tank full of radiant blood parrots did help brighten the space somewhat, but for the most part, the interior matched the sad state of exterior affairs.

The service was curt and brisk, but the food arrived promptly. Our dishes were ill-timed though, with our bowls of steaming pho arriving just moments after our appetizer was delivered. Also, after making a request for chopsticks, we were a bit taken aback when he grabbed two pairs out of a jar by the ends. Needless to say, some tea-disinfecting ensued.

The green onion cake was a good-sized dish, especially given the $3.95 price. Satisfyingly crispy, they weren’t nearly salty enough for me, but I’m finding that’s typical for my palate.

Green Onion Cakes

The pho, size-wise, reminded me a lot of Ninh Kieu – it seemed like a never-ending bowl! Moreover, both our servings included an extremely generous amount of beef, bucking the standard of exaggerating portion amounts with a thick wicket of rice noodles. The broth was good, not great (and dusted with just a wee bit of cilantro), but was on par with many other such restaurants in the city.

Rice Noodle Soup with Medium Beef and Beef Brisket ($7.50)

Beef Noodle Soup with Combination Beef ($7.95)

Given Viet Huong’s proximity to my office, there’s a good chance I’d return if the weather was a deterrent to the lengthier trek to Chinatown’s Pho Tau Bay. But as spring is just around the corner, I’d have to say brisk lunch hour walks are in my immediate future.

Viet Huong Noodle House
10117 107 Avenue
(780) 424-9910
Tuesday – Saturday 10am-9pm, Sunday 10am-7pm, closed Mondays

Setting the Decor Standard: Basil Leaf

I met up with Dickson, my stalwart pho companion, earlier this week to give the newest addition to Chinatown’s ever-revolving dining scene a spin. Basil Leaf, dubbed a Vietnamese restaurant and sports bar, opened about two weeks ago in an unfortunate location. Not unfortunate so much for the ghosts of the failed restaurants past, but for its sight-unseen building, tucked just far enough down 107 Avenue to be missed by most passing by.

Interior

Though this was my introduction to any incarnation of the space,  it looks like the new operators gutted the place, with stunning results. The dark wood floor, intimate leather banquets, and Cactus Club-esque artichoke lights elevate interior design expectations of Asian restaurants. Moreover, the dish and flatware were surprisingly modern, with beautifully curved tea cups and soup spoons in place of more traditional pieces. Between Basil Leaf and Urban China, the bar for the design of Edmonton’s Asian restaurants has been set. Though Basil Leaf does support a “sports bar” in theory – a high, granite bar encircles a mounted television screen, an area separated from the main dining space by a partition – it seems to be a footnote, and shouldn’t detract would-be diners from visiting.

Table setting

The menu was fairly standard for a Vietnamese restaurant, stretching several pages with numerous stir-fries, vermicelli bowls and soups. Prices also seemed match those found at similar establishments, though I can only really speak to pho, which is always my dish of choice.

My predictable pho with medium rare beef was $7.75, while Dickson’s usual deluxe pho with all of the fixings rang in at $8.25. The green onion cake starter was $4.50.

As in Paula’s review, the service was borderline too attentive, with the servers at numerous points hovering over our table, and constantly checking to see if we needed a hot water refill for our tea. For some reason, it wasn’t off-putting – perhaps because they appeared to be genuinely interested in our dining experience.

Of course, with food being the focal point of our visit: I liked the green onion cakes well enough, though the batter had not been evenly seasoned. The pho also could have been better – the curved bowl my dish was served in was another plus, but the flavour of the broth was one-note, and could have been enhanced with more aromatics and spices. Dickson and I also agreed that the beef was overdone, becoming tough and unpleasantly chewy too quickly.

Green Onion Cakes

Beef Noodle Soup with Medium Rare Beef

Deluxe Noodle Soup

While Basil Leaf may not become my destination for pho, I would gladly visit them again. Perhaps for dinner when I might be able to take advantage of a booth , and when the lighting will better highlight the space.

Basil Leaf
10023 107 Avenue
(780) 756-8880

Marathon Pho: Ninh Kieu

The ongoing chronicles of pho continued at Ninh Kieu, an establishment I have passed by countless times on my way into Chinatown, but never really noticed. The only reason it stood out at all was due to the fact that they had, at some point, put up a white vinyl sign which attracted my eye.

The restaurant is most notable because of their large windows, which enclose just about the entire dining area. As I am used to the shadowy corners of Pho Tau Bay, this was definitely a pleasant change. We could have done without the tinkering elevator music though, which although had the intention of providing a relaxing atmosphere, had the opposite affect.

Interior

As is standard, we split an order of green onion cakes ($4.75) to start, and opted for our usual benchmark bowls of pho – for me, the medium rare beef ($7.50) and for Dickson, the special beef noodle soup ($8.50).

Service was friendly and fairly efficient – we weren’t left waiting for our food. I would pass on the green onion cakes next time though – while crisp, the kitchen may have misplaced the salt while making the dish.

Green Onion Cakes

As I always order the smaller portions of pho when given the opportunity, I wasn’t ready for Ninh Kieu’s marathon version of pho. And it wasn’t just me – even Dickson had difficulty getting through the entire serving. However, quality is more important than quantity in the case of pho, and though we found the broth to be satisfactory, it didn’t make an indelible impression on us either.

Medium Rare Beef Pho

Special Beef Noodle Soup

Having the opportune location next to Pho Tau Bay, whose closure periods are hard to predict, I would consider returning to Ninh Kieu in a pinch. I would just have to prepare my appetite for a worthy opponent beforehand.

Ninh Kieu
10708 98 Street
(780) 429-8881
Sunday-Thursday 11am-9pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-10pm

Great Broth: Pho Hoan Pasteur

In our quest to try all of the pho houses in Edmonton, Dickson introduced me to Pho Hoan Pasteur, a small restaurant located in a strip mall across the street from the aviation museum. Over our lunchtime stay, I was surprised at how busy it was on the random weekday – perhaps it wasn’t such a well kept secret as the location seemed to suggest.

The decor was nothing special, and really, with the checkered floor and red booths, the interior could be mistaken for a donair shop or a family-oriented Italian eatery.

Interior

We each ordered variants of our usual beef noodle soup: steak, fatty flank and crunchy (yes, I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it reads on the menu) for Dickson, at $7.25 for a large bowl, and steak and meatballs for me, at $6.35 for a small bowl. We also decided to spring for the green onion cakes ($), and were told that they “take a long time to make” when we ordered them. As we only had an hour for lunch, we wondered what kind of setback the appetizer would bring.

Thankfully, the staff had the prudence to bring us the more timely-to-prepare pho first. The broth was easily some of the best I have ever had in Edmonton – clear and bursting with flavour, the stock had clearly been prepared with care. The meatballs were also notable – sometimes just a protein placeholder, these meatballs had actually been well-seasoned, and did not taste like they had been in the deep freeze for months.

Pho with Steak and Meatballs

Pho with Steak, Fatty Flank and Crunchy

The green onion cakes arrived, and though promising, were ultimately disappointing. Too greasy, and without many green onions to speak of, they weren’t worth the wait.

Green Onion Cakes

The only downside to Pho Hoan Pasteur is that it isn’t within walking distance of my office – there isn’t any way that I can get there without a vehicle within my narrow lunch parameters. Ah well, on to the next challenger!

Pho Hoan Pasteur
11443 Kingsway NW
(780) 761-1989

Just One of Many: Pho Tau Bay Restaurant

Convinced by coworkers that Pho Tau Bay Restaurant (10660 98 Street) would soon become my new favorite pho haunt, I met Dickson, a fellow pho enthusiast, for lunch there this afternoon.

Like most restaurants in Chinatown, both the storefront and interior are nothing to write home about. The decor is dated, furniture worn and floor in need of a makeover. But for the supposed authenticity and cheap prices, much can be overlooked. Well, it seems their prices went up recently – a medium bowl is now $6.20 (up from $5.60), while an extra large bowl is priced at $7. Of course, for the serving size, it is still very reasonable (and cheaper than Pagolac and Golden Bird), but it seems they will have to do more to differentiate themselves from the crowd at this point.

My coworkers weren’t kidding when they said that there was nothing but pho on the menu – twenty varieties, with combinations of beef flank, tendon, brisket and tripe all available. I was disappointed with a lack of rare or medium rare beef, so ended up ordering a medium bowl of pho with beef balls, while Dickson opted for the extra large with steak, well done brisket, flank, tendon and tripe. This was the only non-dim sum meal I’ve experienced where ordering on paper (checking off the quantity desired next to the dish name) was called for.

Our dishes took no more than five minutes to prepare (reminding me very much of Pho Hoa), which was either really efficient or, as we were joking, cause for suspicion. Dickson thought my serving was rather small when compared with others like Hoang Long and Pagolac, but for a lunch meal, I was satisfied with the size. The dish itself though was a bit disappointing – the broth was a tad salty, and overall, we both longed for bowls from any of the other eateries mentioned above.

While we may have been let down by Pho Tau Bay in part because of extremely high expectations, with so many other great pho spots in the area, I’m not sure we’ll be back to give it a second chance.

Pho Tau Bay

Interior

All-pho menu

Beef Ball Pho

Special Pho