Mr. Nguyen Trong Thin (67 years old) has just returned from Japan after bringing his pho closer to international friends. In his small pho shop right in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we have the chance to listen to the story about his life and career, thoroughly and sincerely by this artisan.
– A bowl of “pho bo tai lan” and a poached egg, please!
– Right away, sir.
Coming to this quaint small restaurant in the Old Quarter atmosphere, you may have to queue up for a while. The aroma from the broth cauldron wafting in the air, the green color of onions, the sizzling sound of beef being stir-fried – all these sounds, smells and colors are the restaurant’s advertisement. For the last 40 years, this restaurant only serves one type of pho – pho bo tai lan (half-done stir-fried beef noodle).
Queuing may take from 5 to 10 minutes, however, it’s usually only 60 seconds from the time your order until a steaming bowl of pho is ready. Then you are ready for the pho moment. Crispy flavour of stir-fried beef, depths of sweet broth with a fatty layer above, fresh rice noodles, subtle ginger and cinnamon taste and a whole lot of green onions. Of course, you can leave or add some ingredients to your own liking.
For the Hanoians, the best food is worth the effort of travelling quite some distance or meandering deep into small alleys. Even though every 100m in this city pops up a pho restaurant, there are only a few spots that can keep their customers coming back.
One among them is Pho Thin 13 Lo Duc.
Let’s explore the story behind the steaming bowl of Pho Thin.
Pho Thin 13 Lo Duc Restaurant is one of the most long-standing brands in Hanoi. Visitors who come to Vietnam capital all want to enjoy this famous bowl of pho, which is widely promoted by gourmets, including the most choosy and fastidious diners.
In spite of the diverse and fusion pho scene: from rare to well-done, shank and flank to brisket, or beef soup with bordelaise sauce, Pho Thin still serves its only type: half-done stir-fried beef noodles. This name has been attached to Pho Thin, as many local call it “Pho tai lan Lo Duc”
Behind this flavorful bowl of pho is the life story, the whole career of a pho master. That is Mr. Nguyen Trong Thin (67 years old).
“My name is Nguyen Trong Thin, born and raised in Hanoi.”
After graduating high school, I took the entrance exam to University of Industrial Fine Arts, in the period 68 – 69 in the north of Hiep Hoa province. I was one of the top 4 students who entered the school’s Faculty of Sculpture.
Graduated from university, I worked at Vietnam Television for about 7 years and the National Fine Arts Workshop (now Vietnam Central Fine Art JSC) for the next 2 years. At that time, the living condition is really poor in that subsidy period. I am the 4th child in the 10-sibling family, with a lot of mouths to feed.
When I was young, I especially liked … eating. That is the passion for the wide range of dishes, the quality rather than quantity of food. I was willing to pay much more for a variety of choices. In these times, I often pondered: “Why are there some places that have absolutely delicious food, while other places don’t ?”
After a while, I decided to leave the Fine Arts Workshop to pursue my passion for food. Just because I quit my job, my wife left me. She did not believe I was able to do those business things in the private sector. That was about 1979 – 1980.
Soon then, the economy was open, the state allowed people to do business as long as it did not involve prohibited goods. At that time, next to my house, there was a pho restaurant of Mrs. Vu, where guests queued up in such a long line.
The first time I mentioned opening a restaurant to my dad, he didn’t say anything.
The second time, about a couple of weeks later, I asked again, he continued to say nothing.
The third time I mentioned, here was all he said: “Do you have money? Can you compete with Mrs. Vu’s restaurant?”
I replied: “Mrs. Vu had brought a lot of promising customers, only steps from our house. I promise you, I will do my best to succeed, so that I can pay back to you, mom and dad.”
My father said nothing.
Not until recently that I realized the reason why my father kept silent. He had experienced and understood how businesses were ran at that time. He was worried for his son.
Nobody taught me how to cook. My parents were tiled brick producers, none of my older siblings did anything related to cooking. Only by passion, self-research and try-outs, I started out the restaurant on my own.
When thinking about all the bowls of pho I had eaten in Hanoi, I felt that they basically have quite the same taste of bone-based broth and toppings. I questioned myself: “Can I do it differently? Why do I have to follow that basic recipe?”
So I started from the broth.
Normally, people would simmer pork bones, beef bones, even chicken bones, long enough to get the most out of them. I was bolder: I chose to “color” the broth.
Being a painter, I had quite a natural aptitude towards color. For example, if I looked at the color of broth, I would know whether it was good or not without tasting. Mixing colors came natural to me, and my head just popped up: “What if I mix ingredients from both plants and animals for the best broth color?”.
And those experiments paid off. The sweetness from bones and meat tuned in with the sweetness from vegetables, creating a distinctive sweet taste. Such was the taste that everyone in my family complimented me. I thought to myself: Finally, I did create my own broth recipe.
As I prepared to open my restaurant, I built a coal stove myself. In this stove, temperature could reach up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, in which thin slices of beef would be sizzling in the hot pan for just a moment. “The juice doesn’t get to evaporate, so the beef remain tender and moist.”
“First, I add the oil to the hot pan. Until its near smoking point, I put ginger and beef to the pan and stir quickly. The beef is stir-fried briefly, so it is not too cooked and not too rare, just in the middle of tender richness. The key to that taste is the consistency of the cook when stir-frying the beef. In other restaurants that also sell this pho tai lan, variance results in either chewy beef or too soft and raw beef. Cooking this very kind of pho is not difficult, but a restaurant needs a very consistent cook.”
On the first opening day, my restaurant still had not welcomed any customers. I craved the long queue of the next-door restaurant. Hence, I brought one pan over high heat, tossed garlic, ginger and sliced beef, stir-fried quickly in the flaming pan. The aroma wafted in the air, calling out for curious customers. Some went out to try. Gradually, the waiting customers in front of Vu’s restaurant all came to my place. In the end, Mrs. Vu sold her house and moved to another place.
The outcome was good for me, but not good for Ms. Vu. I had no other choice. I did my own work, as long as I did not violate the law. Now that is called healthy competition.
For the first 3 months, I didn’t make any money. But gradually, due to good reputation, both local and foreign customers flocked here. They would like to inhale the aroma from the steaming pho bowl, add some pepper, fresh chili and lemon. A bowl of Pho Thin costs VND 60,000, diners who want to enhance the taste can eat pho with crispy fried bread-stick and poached eggs. These dishes are born for each other!
From a small noodle shop that quietly sprang up next to a famous pho restaurant and only sell one type of pho, Pho Thin has been through 40 years. Now it has become a familiar name with the Hanoians.
Pho in Hanoi is a long story of many generations, many ways of cooking, many tastes and dozens of ways of doing business. In this capital, Pho shops spring up like mushrooms, yet not all shop-owners can sustain their reputation and keep the customers coming back.
In May 2009, after 30 years of selling pho, I went abroad for the first time to teach cooking pho in South Korea. I brought with me all kinds of raw materials such as beef, pork bones, chicken bone, cinnamon and even fish sauce. In Korea, I “performed” 4 variations: xào giòn (crunchy stir-fried), xào mềm (supple stir-fried), áp chảo nước (sauteed with water) and of course the signature phở bò tái lăn (half done stir-fried). What struck me most was that the diners spared no noodles left, given their delicate etiquette of eating.
After receiving the cooking technique, the Korean asked me to cooperate to open a pho restaurant in Seoul. However, I was too busy with the business at home, I gave them the recipe so that they can operate on their own.
Later, to my surprise, a pho restaurant was open in Seoul, with its name literally translated as the Pho Gift – the gift of recipe from a Vietnamese. If they earnestly want to keep that recipe to best serve the Koreans and Vietnamese expats, then it is my pleasure to give it to them at no cost.
In Vietnam, till now, I have only give my pho recipe to one place – the Vinpearl. I was touched by Mr. Pham Nhat Vuong’s vision and passion for preserving and developing Vietnamese cuisine. I believe, Vinpearl can keep my pho legacy, and Vietnam traditional culture in general. Seeing them respect and preserve the authentic values of pho, I am so glad my efforts have been acknowledged.
Therefore, I have come to all Vinpearl facilities, the international 5-star resorts of Vingroup, to teach cooking pho, carefully and thoroughly every step without taking a penny. I believe what you give away, you keep forever!
10 years from the first time Pho Thin came to Korea, this March, I continued the journey to bring Vietnamese bowl of pho to the world. This time, the destination was Tokyo – the capital of Japan.
Pho is like cherry blossoms, which will appear in different colors and fragrance if grown in other places rather than the Land of the Rising Sun. Opening a pho restaurant and actually running it smoothly was not easy. However, to promote Vietnam culinary to the world, I am willing to do everything.
The ingredients to make pho are not as available in Japan as in Vietnam, so it is even harder to keep the true taste of this noodle soup. Many days prior to the shop opening, I went to Tokyo to choose and test ingredients with the shop owner, Kenji Sumi.
On March 9, 2019, Pho Thin in Tokyo was officially opened. Although the expected opening time was 11am, from earlier, diners had already been lining in front of the restaurant. More than 100 bowls of pho were sold in less than 1 hour, only until 11h20 AM did we sell out.
The next day, the restaurant prepared 1.5 times more than the first day’s, but pho was still quickly sold out due to the large number of diners. Japanese customers shared their interest in the bowl of Pho Thin from Vietnam.
To some small extent, I have made quite a success.
One day before returning to Vietnam, the customer lined up in a long queue. I looked at the scene and had to run quickly inside to cry. I was so happy! It is not one or two days’ achievement, it has been such a long way.
As Kenji Sumi saw my red eyes, he hugged me and cried. The two generations of us cried together. Sometimes happiness is not just money.
Translated by: Mia