Culture | Where to go for pho

North of the tracks at 6414 St. Denis, near the Beaubien subway exit, where there are no longer shops and cafés but houses and schools and gas stations, is Pho Tay Ho – a small Vietnamese restaurant between a housing complex and an immense Couche-Tard.

Outside, the street is dimly lit and narrowed by high snow banks. Though there are very few restaurants in the area, Pho Tay Ho is still hard to spot. There is a low awning above its door lit by white Christmas lights, and a wide window through which its tables and television can be seen.

I went to Pho Tay Ho with three friends in search of a meal I could eat for under $10, hoping that I would enjoy it too. Even though the menu was written in three languages, Vietnamese, French, and English, it was simple to choose from. The problem was that I had never eaten pho (pronounced “fuh”) before, and did not know what and how to order. Fortunately, one of my friends is a dedicated pho eater. He even has a term for that sensation you get when you eat too much too fast, and your ears burn and it’s hard to breathe or see, and all of a sudden most things seem funny – “pho freeze.”

He helped me order Bua Ba Xao Xa ($8). But it was too tasty to eat fast: beef broth and rice-noodles, flavoured with crumbly peanut sauce and vermicelli, topped with basil, mint, and coriander.

Traditionally, pho is a beef-broth soup served with rice noodles, bean sprouts, basil, and lime. The broth is made by simmering beef with cloves, ginger, and cinnamon for several hours; and adding spices until it develops a texture richer and spicier than typical Western broths. It is served with a variety of meats: beef flank, beef tendon, beef tripe, and so on. Chicken broth and meat is less popular but still common.

In fact, my other friend ate Pho Go, Long Ga, Tai ($8.50) – a pho with the heart and liver of a chicken. After dubiously stirring his chopsticks through the meaty pieces, he ended up enjoying it so much he promised to eat it again the next time we go.

And there will be a next time. Not only is Pho Tay Ho’s food impressive, its service and setting is too.

The restaurant is small – there are only eight tables – but it manages to appear spacious. The ceiling is high and the walls off-white, with bouquets of white flowers and scenic paintings of Vietnam hanging on the walls. It reminds me of a small house where all the furniture is in the right place.

Our waiter was genuinely kind and patient. He checked to see if we needed any help ordering without being invasive; when he caught us having a hot-pepper eating contest he laughed and offered more tea.

Pho Tay Ho is generally a friendly place. Sometimes, our waiter would make conversation with guests at other tables, while cooks would come out of the kitchen to have beer and chat. Another waiter actually sat down with a table of guests over a meal, and watched the boxing match on the television. But this is not to imply the service was slow; our food came within 10 minutes of ordering, and the exact moment we ran out of tea the cashier filled it back up again.

Being a perfect place for a casual date, dinner with friends, or enjoying a meal alone, Pho Tay Ho is surprisingly inexpensive. Combined, all four of our meals cost under $40, including tip. If you’re willing to travel the distance, I strongly recommend it.