“What one dish just never tastes the same as it does in Vietnam?” I was recently asked this question on an interview about my upcoming travel cookbook.
Pho. No doubt about it. It’s not the same even a hundred miles outside of Vietnam.
I know because I’ve spent the last decade backpacking and living in Southeast Asia ever since I hung up my fork and pen at Metro, where I had covered the restaurant beat.
Talking about food and the restaurant scene got me nostalgic about my fork-slinging days, so I asked one of my old editors if I could do a review for old times’ sake. The reply: “Sure, anything you want, but how about some Vietnamese places?”
I had a trattoria in mind, but I’d happily bend backward for Metro. A previous editor, Lorraine Gengo, had given me my first break in print right here on these pages.
Within a month, I slurped, chomped and chopsticked my way through 10 Vietnamese restaurants, spanning the gamut from dive to top-end fusion.
I found Fremont’s Pho Saigon Pasteur the most worthy of mention in its class: neighborhood noodle-house diner. This strip-mall dive with just 45 seats is a good example of how a budget eatery could be clean, professional, affordable and delicious all at once.
Two brothers, Dan and Cuong Nguyen, took over this failing restaurant and transformed it within eight months. Dan has a background in biochemistry, hence the restaurant’s name.
For me, however, “pho Pasteur” harked back to my childhood in Vietnam.
My parents used to ride our family’s Honda motorbike with me sandwiched between them, across Saigon for Saturday morning pho. Their favorite shop was a sidewalk kiosk on Pasteur Street a ramshackle collection of tables, chairs and a huge steel cauldron—that was famous throughout the city. To this day, my mother and her friends still insist that Pasteur Street had the best pho in all of South Vietnam.
I can’t vouch for the original, but I can say the one in Fremont is very good in my opinion, one of the top three pho in the South Bay.
To start off, its rice noodles are always perfectly cooked and odorless. The flavorful broth is clear and balanced, beefy without being greasy, deriving its depth from bone and a moderate blend of the six pho spices: cinnamon, cardamom, anise, fennel, clove and coriander.
The secret seventh spice is monosodium glutamate (MSG), ubiquitous in pho both in Vietnam and abroad. This chemical flavor enhancer allows the cook to save as much as a third on meat and bone stock.
I have yet to find a pho house that doesn’t use MSG in any country. With that said, Pho Saigon Pasteur uses the least amount of MSG I’ve ever tasted in a noodle house, a tiny fraction of what the larger restaurants pour into their soups.
My preferred toppings are stewed briskets and rare flank ($6.65). Portions are very generous. I have tried their pho on three occasions and am satisfied with their consistency. Service is accurate, prompt and friendly.
Pho Pasteur’s other bestseller is bo luc lac, beef filet mignon sauteed with garlic, onion, soy sauce and vinegar. It was served with a big mound of steamed rice, chopped lettuce and cucumber slices.
I would have appreciated a few slices of tomato and some acidic dressing to balance the flavors. The meat was on point: medium-rare, juicy, tender and nicely edge-caramelized. I don’t think there’s another comparable $8.95 filet mignon in the Silicon Valley.
The grilled pork and shrimps served on rice vermicelli and greens ($7.75) is probably my least-favorite dish. The well-intentioned, healthy choice of lean pork loin rather than the traditional pork belly, which I prefer, produces meat that is chewy and dry.
The egg rolls ($4.25) and shrimp spring rolls appetizers ($4.25) are fair renditions. Judging from the various rice plates we sampled (ranging from $6.95 to $8.75), I’d say the kitchen is competent.
People often ask me about my ideal bowl of pho, so here is an outline: a broth similar to what they serve here, just a tad more aggressively spiced, no MSG and freshly made noodles. I’d pay handsomely for such a bowl of pho.
Until then, I’ll be swinging by Pho Saigon Pasteur whenever I’m too lazy to cook my own pho.
Andrew X. Pham is the author of ‘Catfish and Mandala,’ ‘The Eaves of Heaven’ and the forthcoming ‘A Culinary Odyssey: My Cookbook Diary of Travel, Flavors, and Memories of Southeast Asia.’