“Do you know how to cook pho?”
Yes, yes, yes, I get this question a lot whenever I first meet someone here in Hawaii. No, not every Vietnamese person actually knows how to cook pho, and yes, I do happen to know how to cook pho. I love eating Vietnamese foods and I cook a fair share at home pretty often, but that doesn’t mean I know how to cook every single Vietnamese dishes. There are just many dishes that can’t be the same when they’re made in a commercial kitchen compared to home-cooked version. Chinatown has an abundance of Vietnamese restaurants and therefore, I’m on a quest to find the best Vietnamese foods here. My quest is strictly concerned with authentic Vietnamese restaurants that serve the local Viet crowd, and possibly feature ambiances that teleport you straight to Vietnam!
First Stop: Pho To Chau
When you think about Vietnamese foods, pho is the only and one dish that can’t be missed. After having tried several mediocre pho Hawaii, I got really frustrated and asked my local Vietnamese friend for recommendation. He then pointed me to Pho To Chau, which is conveniently located in Chinatown by the river where there are a plethora of other Vietnamese restaurants right next to each other. My companion and I walked to Pho To Chau, expecting a wait since it’s what it’s said online. Luckily, there was no wait at all. Upon stepping foot inside of the restaurant, I was immediately impressed with the interior that resembled restaurants in Saigon 50 years ago. Everything felt antique from the burgundy velvet curtain to the rustic tables and chairs.
I got Pho #12 that had well-cooked flank, brisket, tendon, and tripe. My friend got the #9 that had rare steak instead of flank. The meal was served with house-made chili oil “sa-te” and a heaping plate of beansprouts and herbs. I love it when a restaurant makes their own chili oil as it shows that they care about the small details that go with the meal; there are many Vietnamese restaurants that simply don’t serve chili oil or don’t make their own.
The bowl was served piping hot and filled to the brim. I would have preferred pho to be served in a bigger bowl so the broth doesn’t spill, but I guess “filling-it-up-to-the-brim” is the way to go at Pho To Chau.
The broth was clean tasting. It is definitely not the best pho broth I’ve ever had in my life, but it is still among one of the better ones in Hawaii that I’ve tried so far. The fatty well-cooked flank is my favorite, since I like my pho meat to have that chewy toothsome mouth feel.
My companion liked to put a lot of herby garnishes to his bowl. He thoroughly enjoyed his pho but thought that he’d had better somewhere.
Overall, for a mom-and-pop pho restaurant, Pho To Chau deserves a 4/5 stars for the quality and quantity. It is a really good pho place and I might come back, but just not like the type where I go out of my way to re-visit. Or maybe I’m just a picky Vietnamese pho eater.
Second Stop: Kim An Vietnamese Restaurant
Vietnamese foods are not only about pho. In Vietnam, there are a million type of noodle soups that Vietnamese people eat on a daily basis. OK, well, maybe not a million, but there is a wide variety. I didn’t grow up eating pho every day and neither did any of my friends – pho is more of a breakfast treat that we have once in a while.
Now, what is the second best beef noodle soup in Vietnam? It is definitely Bun Bo Hue, which means Hue Beef Vermicelli Soup. Hue is a city in the central region of Vietnam, and it was once the national capital where the Nguyen Dynasty emperors lived. Other than being an awesome place to visit and learn history, Hue is known for its spicy cooking that utilizes red chili peppers. Bun Bo Hue captures perfectly all the Hue culinary elements: spicy, umami, and homey, yet refined.
Kim An in Chinatown is another mom-and-pop shop that caters mostly to local Vietnamese. While Pho To Chau only have pho and a few more dishes, Kim An features a variety of Vietnamese dishes. I decided to order the famous Bun Bo Hue, and my companion ordered the Hai Nam Chicken Rice.
The Bun Bo Hue at Kim An definitely did not disappoint. In fact, it is probably the best Bun Bo Hue I’ve had in Hawaii so far. The bowl consisted of fat vermicelli noodle, spicy beef lemongrass broth and toppings of sliced beef shank, pork patty, pork hock, and a few cubes of pig’s blood. Now, if you are not an adventurous eater, you can ask to leave the pork hock and the blood cubes out. For me, they tasted perfectly delicious. This bowl of Bun Bo Hue was like a beautifully created canvas that have a colorful multi-dimensions in terms of taste, smell, and feel. The broth was delicately spicy but not too overwhelming, with strong hints of lemongrass and beef bones that had been simmered for hours.
If you don’t feel like noodle soup, the Hai Nam Chicken Rice is definitely the best choice for you.
The best part about this chicken rice is not the chicken, but the aromatic rice that has been cooked in a rich chicken broth. Each bits of rice was full of umami and chicken flavor, you can just eat the rice on its own.
The chicken is standard bone-in boiled chicken with skin on. If you don’t like bone-in meat and chicken skin, good luck.
Kim An also serves cold sugarcane juice, which is a perfect sweet treat for a hot day. I was drinking it too fast so no pictures were taken.
Kim An is absolutely your one stop shop if you want Bun Bo Hue and Hai Nam Chicken Rice. The service was quick and courteous, given it was during lunch rush. This is the type of places I would like to come back and take my friends to.
Pho To Chau: 1007 River St, Honolulu, HI 96817. Opens daily 8.30AM - 2.30PM.
Kim An Vietnamese Restaurants: 174 N King St, Honolulu, HI 96817. Opens daily 7AM - 3PM.
Photos: Bien & Grant Durant