Food and the city..the hags are here to eat and then tell you about it!

Saturday, August 20, 2005


86 St John St

Tel: 020 7253 7624 (no bookings)

Nearest Tube/Rail: Barbican/Farringdon

Average: £12 (2 courses, inc. non alcoholic drink)

PHO - the name of Vietnam's national soul food. The self proclaimed "Vietnam in a bowl" cafe/restaurant has a lot to live up to, and being only 6 weeks old its definitely trying hard.


About 6 months ago, I stumbled upon an article in the Metro about a chain of Vietnamese restaurants called Pho from the good ol' U S of A which was about to launch its flagship store somewhere in London. Well, finally the mothership has landed. For those loyal readers, you can probably guess that the Hags rate Vietnamese food quite highly and are always in search for the perfect pho. So once we'd found out that Pho had arrived, we wasted no time in getting our grubbly paws on a steaming bowl of goodness. For the uninitiated pho (pronouced "fuh") is probably the most well known Vietnamese dish. On the back of its simple menu, PHO describes it as the national soul food of Vietnam and it also delves more into the history of pho. The combined influence of the French and Chinese resulted in this divine bowl of broth, beef (usually)and noodles. For those looking for more on this, check out the Pho King.

Educational as well as functional, the simple menu presented us with a choice of about 7 different types of pho ranging from variations of beef (meatballs, sliced beef, brisket etc), chicken, prawns and even a vegetarian. This Hag was also surprised by the the last pho entry of Pho Bo Hue - a traditional spicy soup based noodle dish which doesn't often make an appearance. Price for a bowl of pho ranges from around £6-£8, which isn't too bad considering that its right in the city.

For those who aren't so keen on the noodle soup concept, PHO also offers 4 different Bun dishes (vermicelli rice noodles with hot marinated toppings and herbs) which are normally served chilled and also Bahn Mi - the traditional Vietnamese sandwich. Again this was a surprise entry as these sandwiches, often with hot fillings such as meatballs, chicken and pork, are hard to find. Going backwards, the menu also offers a few traditional starters such as summer rolls (fresh rice paper rolls), fried spring rolls and Vietnamese savoury crepes filled with crunchy bean sprouts, chicken and prawns. Overall the menu, although not extensive, was still quite impressive. PHO claims to try and maintain the high quality of pho served by devoting its attention on its signature dish - pho.


So 6 weeks after its grand opening, Pho has attracted quite a following. The Man and myself arrived to find no available tables but offered to wait. The staff were attentive and apologetic as they don't operate on bookings but rather a first come, first serve basis. So whilst waiting for a free table, we had time to decide what we wanted to sample tonight. The wait for a table wasn't too arduous as after 10 minutes we were shown to our table with our orders ready. Once seated, the Man was delighted to find that like most traditional (well, Western type traditional - I doubt that you might find these on the streets of Hanoi!) Vietnamese cafes, each table was set with the pre-requisite bottle of vietnamese bbq and chilli sauce.

Chilli sauces

Well, it was definitely a good start anyways. After our drinks orders were dispensed - traditional vietnamese coffee and home made lemonade, both excellent - we got down to business. For starters, we'd settled on a serve of prawn summer rolls and a Vietnamese crepe with chicken and prawns. Both arrived quite promptly, even though our waiter had informed us that the crepe may take a couple minutes longer than the rolls it wasn't too long before we could tuck in.

Home made lemonade and coffee Starters

The summer rolls were light and definitely tasty, although the accompanying dipping sauce lacked the usual punch. More fish sauce please! The crepe looked fantastic and went down well, but again the accompanying dipping sauce (nuoc cham) lacked the characteristic salty punch - defintely the lightweight version of what we're accustomed to.

For our mains, The Man had to have his fix of pho and settled on Pho Tai - sliced beef noodle soup. I'd decided to try their Bun dishes and went for the Bun with juicy prawns (who can resist juicy prawns, I ask ya?). Again, both mains arrived quite swiftly after our starters were cleared away, which was fine by us as we were quite hungry. Our anticipation for Vietnamese had whetted the appetite and cravings to a frenzy and the time had come.

Bun - prawns and vermicelli

And the verdict.....a little disappointing. Don't get us wrong, both dishes were quite nice but again, lack the punch and felt quite under spiced. The Pho Tai broth lacked depth, but perhaps it could be due to it being a fresh batch. Our waiter had informed us that they'd been so busy tonight that they'd had to break out their extra stash from the fridge. My vermicelli rice noodles came with all the right accompaniments and the prawns were indeed juicy and quite a generous portion too, I might add. But as with the starters, the accompanying dipping sauce (again nuoc cham) lacked the punch and was quite plain. Towards the end, I gave up eating it as I just got bored. Yes, believe it or not, I got bored of eating it.

Overall, our meal wasn't a total disappointment - the starters were nice, if a little bland. But for a restaurant/cafe to hang its mantle on being pho specialists, its still got some way to go.




Blogger Culinary Hag said...

Gosh Haggers, that's dissapointing. I can't remember the last time I was bored with a meal. That's quite harsh. I hope they read this website and work on the "depth" of their Pho. Tsk tsk


12:14 pm

Blogger Culinary Hag said...

Yes, it was quite an effort to make myself eat the blandness after a while. But then again, I'll go back once more to see if its like this again before I write it off completely.


2:04 pm

Blogger micawber said...

How sad -- we were planning to go Friday night for a "last meal" in Clerkenwell before moving to West London. Guess we'll have to go to our old favorite St John instead:


1:30 pm

Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Once seated, the Man was delighted to find that like most traditional (well, Western type traditional - I doubt that you might find these on the streets of Hanoi!) Vietnamese cafes, each table was set with the pre-requisite bottle of vietnamese bbq and chilli sauce.

Small thing, but when i went to Vietnam, each street cafe we ate pho in had both of these sauce bottles on the tables. Don't think it's really a "Western" tradition.

Having said that, I agree that Pho (the restaurant) is a real disapointment. I didn't mind it the first time I went, but subsequently it has lost allot since it's become popular. The Bun's aren't made with rice vermicelli, but rather what seemed to be spaghetti, and had little flavour. If you want a MUCH better Vietnamese meal, there's a fantastic restaurant on Lower Rd in Surrey Quays, which I think kicks ar*se over Pho. Highly recommended.

5:34 pm

Blogger Culinary Hag said...

We couldn't agree more....see our post on Cafe East. Owned by's the only Pho that kicks major ass!!

4:41 pm

Blogger Michelle said...

Just found your review (a little late I know) after discovering Pho a few weeks ago. Big thing - this is not part of the US chain you mentioned - it's an independent so we should cut it a little slack!! Although not sure it needs it - the food was delicous - and looks like they've taken your advice to heart as they have fish sauce on the tables and a spicy version of nuoc cham available. Good place - thoroughly enjoyed my pho and the other half loved his lotus salad. If you're ever in the US do avoid that chain - Pho Hoa - it's awful.

7:23 pm

Blogger Culinary Hag said...

Hi Michelle,

Gosh. Might try it again then - esp. now it's not affliated with a big chain. Hate chains:(
Pho has to be good enough for me to travel that far

2:11 pm

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Went to Pho for the first time last night and I thought it was fantastic. The food was very fresh and tasty, the service excellent and a great atmosphere, with semi outside seating, perfect in this weather. Reasonable too.
Big thumbs up from me.

11:59 am

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know why some of you guys thumb up for Pho in St. John Street. I tried proper Pho in Hanoi, Vietnam (with brands like Pho Thin, Pho Tu Do, Pho Mau, Pho Bat Dan...)

This Pho restaurant in St. John street absolutely has a terrible taste for Pho. The soup base is lack of taste (which needs a lot of herbs and spices to make it up: cinamond, ginger, shallot,... and little touch of "nuoc mam" - fish sauce.). Secondly, the noodle is quite big for the standard size of Pho's noodle, I had it quite hard to chew (maybe because it wasn't boiled 100%)

I went there one day with my partner to have a try. After having a bowl of Pho, the waitress asked me about the taste. I honestly said, "it is not Pho, it's just in a shape of a Pho Bowl". She tried to convinced me by saying that "Oh, it's difficult to find the ingredients for the soup base in London"

Fair enough, so then, "why you openned this business?" I asked, "the ingredients for the soup base can easily be found in any Chinese town or Vietnamese supermarkets in Mare Street, Hackney, London, the only difficult thing is that your chef's skills to cook them together".

And that made her shut up :D

2:04 pm

Anonymous Anton Ego said...

I tried Pho at Westfield Mall...same company as the Clerkenwell one so I assume the food is the same.
Must say it really is NOT pho-like. It's the equivalent of saying sweet and sour meat is Chinese food.

The soup has no 'zing' and the meat (beef) doesn't look very lively. Looks like the poor animal's been long dead and reprocessed many times till it ended up in the bowl as rectangular sheets. The noodles are way too chewy and portions are small.
It was a wierd experience and unworthy of the price and long queue.

7:02 pm

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6:29 am


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