Over the past few years of my life, Vietnamese cuisine has slowly become a bigger and bigger part of it. In the first couple decades of my existence, I had “next to no” experience with Vietnamese food, maybe a bowl of pho at a dingy noodle shop in Toronto and a side of Vietnamese spring rolls, but that’s about it. I had some serious prejudices against Vietnamese restaurants, but as they say, “you’re only scared of what you don’t know.” My blissful ignorance continued on for many years, but while I was at the New England Culinary Institute, a friend got me enjoying the flavors of Vietnam, on occasional trips to Montreal. She introduced me to the basics and the fresh elements of the cuisine started appealing more to me. Lemongrass, fish sauce, mint, chili and lime became acquaintances rather than the strangers they previously were.
It wasn’t until I moved to Vancouver and met “Monk” did I start really understanding and appreciating Vietnamese cuisine to its full extent. “Monk’s” family is of Chinese descent, but have lived in Vietnam for a few generations. “Nuoc Mom” and “all her offspring” were born in the homeland, except for “Monk” who was born in Newfoundland. Wow, talk about a wild mix “Monk” is, she’s a newfie, Viet-Chinois; she’s like a bottle of Schreech, infused with lemongrass, fish sauce, ginger and soy sauce, a potent salty melange, a mixologist’s nightmare. I better ease up making fun of her, I do have to live with her and her tolerance for my ethnically charged humor is minimal. Sorry honey. Well over the years, she’s be exposing me to the intricacies of Vietnamese food and I’ve really started to grow fond of it. In fact, I now appreciate and crave certain elements of the cuisine. In 2007, we toured Vietnam, backpacked our way north to south and “had a trip of a lifetime.” Eating vibrant street food, while crouched on little plastic chairs, in the back alleys of Hanoi was game-changing. The live soft shell crabs and the swimming fish in Saigon were epic. The flavors and textures I encountered during that trip left an indelible impression on my culinary outlook. Our varied food experiences were very eye-opening and I now consider myself “open-minded” toward Vietnamese cuisine.
Here in Vancouver, we eat at Vietnamese restaurants relatively frequently. What’s more satisfying than a hot, tasty bowl of pho on a rainy Vancouver day? I continually ask the “out-laws”, friends and acquaintances where the best Vietnamese restaurants are and have yet to find a clear winner. Though I personally have pinpointed a few weaknesses in the overall cuisine, I enjoy it for what it is and love many different dishes. A few months back, we were running some errands up by Coquitlam Center, noticed that a Vietnamese restaurant has sprung up, where there was previously a sketchy Japanese joint and we thought we’d give it a try. Pho Phu Thinh [1175 Johnson St, Coquitlam, (604) 468-8686] is located in a strip mall behind Coquitlam Center and you’d probably miss it unless you were looking for it or you accidently turned into this strip of shops/restaurants. Over the past few months, we’ve eaten there a half-dozen times; the food is tasty and consistent and the service is quick and friendly. What more can one ask for?
Over the past few months, between “Monk” and I, we’ve sampled quite a few of the dishes on the menu. I still tend to be fairly boring when it comes to ordering in Vietnamese restaurants. Monk is much more adventurous, but her tastes and mine are significantly different. Of the dishes we’ve eaten at Pho Phu Thinh (PPT), I found the spring rolls (cha gio) consistently good, always fresh and crispy and not too greasy. The salad rolls (goi cuon) were fair, though I much prefer the ones we roll at home. I did like the dipping sauce, which often tends to be “a little sickly sweet”, but theirs had a nice amount of savoriness. The fried chicken wings were tasty, but definitely not mind-blowing by any stretch of the imagination. Well seasoned, hot and cooked nicely. Most recently, “Monk” and I shared a banh mi with grilled pork; I’ve blogged about banh mi before and could go on for hours about the perfect Viet-sammy; let’s just say this one was fresh, nicely toasted and a good balance of all the ingredients. Banh mi is not their specialty, but it was fairly good. We’ve also tried assorted rice and noodle dishes, which all were very good and they all fell completely within our expectations.
“For our purposes”, the two dishes I will focus on is the pho dac biet and the bun bo hue. Pho dac biet is my staple go to dish at most Vietnamese restaurants. It translates to special pho and is usually their finest pho offering. To me it’s a bowl of noodles with hot flavorful broth and assorted meats including sliced rare beef, well cooked flank, fatty flank, tendon, tripe and beef balls. This bowl of noodles is also accompanied by a plate of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, chilis and citrus. The combination of the hot ingredients, with the fresh ingredients, the amazing textures, the contrast in temperatures and the overall warmth of the dish, makes this a classic to me. PPT’s version is “spot on” in my opinion. I’ve had it on three different occasions and it’s been the same every time. In my opinion, consistency is the cornerstone of a successful restaurant and I appreciate it so much more than creativity and other “bally-hoo.” “Monk” complains that the pho dac biet is too meaty, but since I’m a “meaty kind a guy”, it’s right up my alley. So if pho is classic and clean, bun bo hue (bbh) is a pho’s angry step brother. I have no idea whatI’m trying to say, but I’ll just leave it at that. Bbh is a lightly spicy noodle soup traditionally served with beef shank, pig’s feet, blood cake and pork balls. Yes it’s noodle soup, but different noodles, different broth and different meats. Over the year’s, I’ve been fortunate to have some exceptional versions of this dish. Once, prepared by “Hair By Lena” here in Vancouver, an all day labor of love and the second time was in Hue, at a restaurant aptly named Bun Bo Hue. Both of these versions were amazing and I now compare all others to these. The one at PPT is good; it doesn’t have the exotic ingredients (pig’s feet, blood cake) that I truly love, but the flavors and the balance of all the ingredients make it very enjoyable. At PPT, their version includes well done flank, beef shank, pork ham and chicken meatballs. The flavor of the broth is very nice, not overwhelmingly spicy and again was perfectly consistent the two times I’ve had it.
Issues and concerns; I don’t really have any. The service is always extremely friendly and on our last visit, I noticed the good amount of regular patrons they’ve already amassed. They’ve only been in business since November and I feel it’s my personal obligation to support small independently owned restaurants. When the food is good and the service is efficient and friendly, it’s makes that task so much easier. The food is consistently good, above and beyond that, the location is relatively convenient for us. So, give PPT a try; it might not be the best Vietnamese restaurant in Vancouver, but it’s certainly becoming my favorite.
On my chef’s night out scale, Pho Piu Thinh receives 3.5/5 SOB(slices of bacon).