Pho in the GTA

Recently the Japanese ramen has been taking over Toronto with bowls of oily soup and hunks of tender meat. Although ramen is good, I can't help but go back to its Vietnamese cousin - pho. It still offers the comforting combination of hot soup and carby noodles, but with the added benefit of fresh vegetables and less oil.

With so many locations, options are endless. Many reviews and articles have been written about downtown pho locations. But what if you live north of Bloor where should you go? I've visited a few uptown locations and here's my take. Keep in mind that some of the restaurants are chains so they have other locations throughout the city. I haven’t gone to any of their other sites so can’t vouch if everything is identical.

My "Go-To" Location

Location: Pho 88
Address: 325 Bamburgh Circle

Pho 88 isn’t really the best at anything but was the restaurant my parents brought me to as a child, so I can’t help but feel nostalgia towards it. There’s something about it that offers a homey feeling to me, so I love to stop by after coming back from a long vacation.

My pho of choice is the small well done flank with tendon ($6), which surprisingly is a combination rarely found at other locations. Most connoisseurs like their beef rare and to have it cooked table side in the broth. My preference is to have the meat cooked to begin with in order to retain as much heat in the broth as possible, especially after adding in the cool vegetables. The tendon is a great addition but has to be small pieces cooked for long periods of time to get it to the sticky glutinous jelly consistency I enjoy - Pho 88 nails that down.

Their broth is saltier than the others so it’s a matter of preference. But, since the beef, noodles and vegetables (bean sprouts and basil) are not seasoned I like the broth to be savoury to bring everything together. Additionally,their bowls contain more onions (chopped green and shavings of white) which add a nice aroma to the soup.

Pho 88’s biggest problem is inconsistencies. Sometimes the broth and spring rolls are amazing and other times just okay. I find they are surprisingly at peak performance during weekends when they are busiest. Normally, their pork and shrimp spring rolls($3.50) are crispy and the filling a good mix of pork, veggies and vermicelli noodles. On this occasion the filling was a tad mushy because of adding too much taro into the mix, but they still had their usual crispiness.

Overall mark - 8 out of 10

Where You Go for Vegetables and Spring Rolls

Location: Pho Metro
Address: 2057 Lawrence Avenue East

Pho Metro is a recent find for me located in a small strip mall where you’d never notice it unless you knew where to go. With the smallest capacity, this place gets busy during peak hours. Luckily, service is lightening-quick with bowls arriving minutes after placing your order.

Included in their plate of vegetables are the normal bean sprouts, basil and lime wedges; but, they also offer long coriander which I haven’t found anywhere else. The coriander looks like a thick long blade of grass and tastes like a fusion of chive and mild coriander.

The broth of Pho Metro’s noodles ($5.95) is clearer than competitors and almost has a consume quality to it. Not offering a cooked beef option, I wrote it in and unfortunately the beef arrives shrivelled and unappetizing looking. It’s likely because they use a leaner cut of beef so it’s relatively dry, although still tender given its tissue paper thinness.

The cigar thick spring rolls ($4.50 for 2 or $7.50 for 4) are the best I’ve ever had with a filling where you can actually taste the pork. They are crispy and have an airy delicate centre; I could easily have two to myself! As a warning, Pho Metro’s spring rolls are served piping hot (coming from someone who can handle hot temperatures), so you may want to hold yourself back and let them cool down a bit.

Overall mark - 8.5 out of 10

Where You Go for the Cleanliness

Location: Pho Vietnam
Address: 3262 Midland Avenue

Recently opening a new location on Midland Avenue, Pho Vietnam's dining room is one of the most opulent and cleanest I've seen. Consisting of individual tables (rather than the long communal set-up), relatively comfortable chairs and clean wood panelling it’s a location for those who may be squeamish about the regular hole-in-the-wall surroundings.

Also, they are one of the only restaurants that serve their side of bean sprouts pre-boiled, if e-coli is something that troubles you.

Strangely, they do not offer a well done beef only option (I’m sure they may if you specially request it), so I opted for the rare & well done beef pho ($6.50). Pho Vietnam also offers a choice of noodles – dried or fresh. The fresh version has a smoother texture but I find it too soft. Rather, the tried and true dried version, which of course is rehydrated before serving, has the springiness I like.

Pho Vietnam is likely better for those that are health conscious. Their broth is bland for me but is good for those who are watching their salt intake and the thinly shaved beef is much leaner than most. Sadly, during my visit, the broth wasn’t hot enough so quickly became lukewarm after adding all the vegetables.

The pork and shrimp spring rolls ($5.50) were extremely crispy, to the point that it may have been too crispy as it seems like they were rolled in two layers of wrapper. Sure, crunch is great, but a really good spring roll also has an airy “light” middle, so I found Pho Vietnam’s version a bit dense.

Overall mark - 7.5 out of 10