rick mcginnis/metro toronto
Address: 1603 Dundas St. W.
Hours: Mon.-Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $45
**** (out of 5)
For several tantalizing months, while the brown paper was still up on the windows of the storefront on Dundas Street West in the sleepy Brockton neighbourhood, everyone speculated about just what was going into the long-dormant space. The floor-to-ceiling glass facing the street promised something unusually slick for the strip, which is better known for its plumbing supply shops, Portuguese sports bars and storefront churches. It wasn’t until the letters were applied to the gray board above the glass that we knew it would be a Vietnamese restaurant specializing in ph?, the beef noodle soup that’s a staple of the southeast Asian country.
Helen Nguyen and her friend Hanna Nguyen had worked together as waitresses and found themselves talking about what to do with the storefront that Helen owned, which was sitting vacant until Helen could find a tenant. "It was just a coincidence," recalls Hanna. "We were just sitting around talking and we said, ‘Do you want to do a business with me together?’"
They decided to open a Vietnamese restaurant, but with a more stylish presentation than you’d usually find in the sorts of places you find around Dundas Street West and Spadina, with their scuffed tile and glaring fluorescent lights washing out the projection TV playing karaoke hits. They enlisted a designer known for his work with the Spring Rolls chain, and a year after the coincidence of their conversation, Pho Phuong opened.
That was two months ago, and Helen and Hanna have been surprised by the clientele they’ve drawn since then. "I’ve lived in this area for 16 years and I know it pretty well," Hanna says, "and there are a lot of Vietnamese here ... First we thought that a lot of Vietnamese would come, but it ended up that a lot of Canadians started eating here. Very surprising."
It’s a welcoming space, for sure, with its soft spotlighting and dark earth tone decor, all wood and cream walls. But then, of course, there’s the food. No matter how you end up there, you have to talk about the pho, the beef broth and rice noodle soup that’s a staple of Vietnam. There are debates about where pho comes from — one school claims it’s a Chinese dish, adapted during the long, ancient occupation of Vietnam by China, while others say it comes from another occupier, the French, and their pot-au-feu, or beef stew. In any case, it arrived here with the waves of Vietnamese immigration during and after the Vietnam War, along with bun, another noodle dish, and Vietnam’s light, crispy spring rolls.
The first surprise is the aroma of the broth; I’m accustomed to a heady smell of beef bouillon and salt, so it’s a surprise to be greeted with cinnamon, followed by star anise and clove — aromas more associated with baking than soup. Like most of Pho Phuong’s menu, it’s remarkably delicate, and a few spoonfuls gives me a chance to adjust the spiciness with the bottle of hot sauce that inevitably accompanies the dish.
The spring rolls are nice, with a fine, crispy wrapper and a bracing little note of rice vinegar in the filling. Another appetizer, the Banh duon dac biet, is a generous sampling of Vietnamese staples — slices of sweet, sausage-like Vietnamese ham, a wedge of sour pork that looks, at first, like a hunk of watermelon, and a dense deep fried shrimp cake. The steamed rice rolls are reminiscent of dim sum, filled with ground pork and spices, and thanks to the inherent lightness of Vietnamese food — all those sprouts, cucumber and mint, and conspicuous minimum of oil used in cooking — it’s possible to sample a broad variety of tastes without feeling stuffed. Even at what Hanna and Helen acknowledge are higher prices than most Vietnamese restaurants charge, it’s still a bargain.