It will come as no surprise to most that I’m an adventurous eater. In fact, the most obscure items on the menu are the ones that I will generally choose; so, when I saw a top choice on the menu in Pho Phung, Cabramatta, I knew I had to grab my chopsticks and get slurping. I have this theory that if it’s on the menu it’s there for a reason, which is why I often order the dishes that would make grown men pale. It’s a test of my own culinary prowess: just how far can I go?
Vietnamese pho is, to me, like mother’s milk. I simply can’t get enough of it. Whenever it’s on the menu you can guarantee that I’ll choose it. I may be predictable in my food choices, but I am always a happy customer. What, after all, is better than a giant bowl of steaming spiced broth, a mix that takes time and love to perfect, with thick chewy rice noodles topped with meat, assorted vegetables and herbs? Exactly.
Cabramatta, about 40 minutes by train from Sydney, is like being in Vietnam. Well, a mini Vietnam. From the street vendors to the available Vietnamese goodies, even the questionable cleanliness (I witnessed one vendor drop a piece of meat on the ground, pick it up and pop it on top of the salad he was preparing), it is authenticity to a T; and the pho, my God, the pho – the smell fills the streets, the photos on every shop front inviting you in to try their famous bowls of heaven.
We had been aiming for a place called Pho Tai Bay, the pho joint named as the best in Cabramatta, but sadly upon arrival discovered that it was shut. On a Tuesday? Most bizarre. But Pho Phung was just around the corner, so we slid open the door and took a seat.
I studied the menu tacked up on the wall opposite us. Thin-sliced beef with pho. Brisket with pho. Mixed meat with pho. Beef brisket fat with pho. Woah. Backtrack. Did that mean the brisket was fatty or that it was the actual fat from the brisket? What does that even look like? I had to find out.
“I’ll have the pho tai gau, please.”
The girl looked at me. She didn’t write my order down. “You want pho tai gau?”
She still wasn’t writing. Her eyes narrowed. “Fat.” She pulled at her arm pointedly. “You want fat?”
Ah. So it was literal fat. “Um … yes?”
She gave me a look which I decided was full of awe and wonder, but was probably the look you’d give a crazy person on the street. She shrugged, wrote down the order and wandered off, and a few moments later our bowls arrived.
The waitress placed in front of me a bowl of steaming, crisp green scallion slices and fragrant smells. Heaving plates of Thai basil, lemon slices and beansprouts had already been placed in front of us to add to our pleasure. I examined my bowl with trepidation. The waitress watched me from a distance with a mixture of horror and curious amusement, the kind one might have when watching a small creature being stalked by one much larger.
I sampled my noodles – not the best I’d ever had, a little soggy and prone to disintegrate, but not too bad. I then tried some of the thin-sliced beef on top: rare. So far, so good. So then the fat. There was no escaping it. I chose a relatively small piece to sample. It was thin, chewy and, of course, delicious. Does that make me sound weird? I mean, fat makes things taste delicious. It didn’t even taste greasy; it was just chewy and, um, awesome. I slightly hated myself with each bite I took, and my arteries hated me even more but, by golly, I finished the whole thing. I felt super-human. Fairly god-like actually.
I put down my chopsticks, feeling my pulse quicken slightly, though whether this was due to a sense of achievement or a minor heart attack, I’m not sure. AUS$9 for a heart attack in a bowl: not bad at all. I vowed to hit the gym hard later that afternoon – achievement was now being replaced with guilt – but it was a very content sort of guilt, like when you’ve done something bad and you know you should feel bad, but in fact you really don’t feel all that terrible. Ah, you only live once.
Pho Phung, 117 John Street, Cabramatta 2166, Australia.