Now reading I Love Pho Forever

I Love Pho Forever

In search of outstanding pho in Toronto.

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This comes from our Pho Issue. Buy it today!

Manh Phan farmed rice on her family’s plot in South Vietnam, lived through a war, fled to Malaysia on a rheumy boat with her husband and two young children, emigrated from Malaysia to Canada, worked the day shift in a plastics factory, worked the night shift at an earthworm farm as an earthworm picker to supply the cosmetics industry (I didn’t ask), raised her children, earned enough from her worm picking and plastics labors to buy a condominium in Toronto with her husband, Son Le, and then spent twenty-one years trimming and sanding auto bumpers at an auto parts factory.

Compared to all that, opening Pho Metro six years ago with Son Le, their daughter, Tara, and their son, Ben, was a regular tickle party. It increased the control and freedom they gained by moving to Toronto. Even though the city has scores of pho shops, they thought they could do a better job. They’ve been successful enough that their shop has opened two other locations. Manh swears that the hot-pink neon sign of a smiling cow’s head she commissioned for the front window has brought the business good luck.

Manh works in a rubberized yellow apron, and starts each morning at seven a.m. with a pile of bones and a case of chickens. The night before each service, the bones—from beef shin, usually—get a hot-water soak, and then the chickens get heaved with those bones into 100-liter stockpots for a parboil. In the morning, Manh and Son and their cooks roast onions and ginger on their kitchen’s grill, and then throw those in with the chickens and the bones and simmer them all under a rising layer of golden fat for a good few hours before the lunch rush starts.

Before you tuck into the Phans’ pho, the steam rises up from the bowl as a welcome: the unfurling warmth of Vietnamese cinnamon; an updraft of clove; a high, soft whisper of star anise above the iodine tang of rare beef. The soup is distinguished by the juxtapositions: rich, limpid, liquid collagen is set against the punch of lime; falling-apart bites of brisket are contrasted by the juicy, soapy snap of sawtooth herb.

The pho at Pho Metro grabs your attention, which makes the place an anomaly among Toronto pho shops. Pho is common enough and old enough and unstylish enough here that in many shops it’s achieved a sort of white-bread uniformity. In a lot of Toronto pho spots, you’re really better off ordering from the non-pho menu. At Pho Metro, Manh Phan’s pho—not just the pho dac biet, but also the grilled chicken version—is something you shouldn’t miss.

Vietnamese immigrants began arriving in earnest in Toronto in the mid-1970s, but the numbers didn’t amount to much until around 1979. That year, Canada announced it would sponsor refugees on a one-to-one basis: for every immigrant that private citizens pledged to support, the government would pay the way of a second one. It worked, too—that era of open borders remains one of the proudest moments in Canada’s modern history. By the mid-1980s, the country had taken in 110,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Pho first showed up in Toronto’s Chinatowns on Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street and East Gerrard Street, and then on Ossington Avenue in the west. Saigon Palace opened, along with Saigon Le Lai, Pho Hung, Pho Hoa, Pho 54, and a place that the city’s 1980 Yellow Pages called “Vietnamese Café (upstairs from George’s Spaghetti House).” On Ossington Avenue, the likes of Dundee Fish and Chips and Louie’s Galvanized Sheet Metal made way for a string of Vietnamese cafés and karaoke bars, as well as restaurants including Pho Tien Thanh and Golden Turtle.

They were cheap as a rule and served pho as a rule. “The absolutely, without-a-doubt best-tasting and most sweetly priced deal on restaurant food in this city today is pho,” announced one 1994 newspaper column that was typical of the time.

With few exceptions, pho here hasn’t much evolved since then. And so people who care about pho often argue over the minutest differences. The bean sprouts are straighter. The bathrooms are brighter. The XL bowl at your favorite place costs seventy-five cents more than at mine.

I like Pho Linh on College Street, where the flavors are sharp and the room smells funky like shrimp paste. And after Pho Metro, I especially like Pho Tien Thanh, one of the last Vietnamese spots left on Ossington Avenue. Pho Tien Thanh is a taste of the 1990s on a strip that has almost completely gone over to boutique design stores and vinyl shops and upmarket restaurants populated by the canvas espadrilles set. The walls at Pho Tien Thanh are stucco and painted Pepto-Bismol pink, the tables burgundy Formica. The logo on the menu here shows a fat Italian chef with a floppy mustache and an eighteen-inch toque. “I LOVE PHO FOREVER” says a red sticker plastered across the restaurant’s window.

The broth at Pho Tien Thanh has body to it: weight and depth that you feel on your lips, but also just the right balance. The brisket is fatty, the rare beef a bright red mound, and the tripe quite possibly a little too ripe—even that, I’ve come to like. (For milder, friendlier broth, there’s always the much more popular Golden Turtle Restaurant up the street.) The tendon bits are only nourishment and texture, but you end up chasing them anyway along with the last of the herbs and the sprouts and the broken bird’s-eye chilies and the dregs of broth around the bottom of your bowl.