07 May, 2010

Dreaming of Phở.

I miss a lot of things about Paris, the revolving art shows, the endless window-shopping of every kind from arcane bookshops to perfumeries to galleries (what the French call lèche-vitrine, or window licking). I miss Ladurée's rococo tea room and I miss the grand boulevards (Haussmann was right, in the end). But lately, I find myself very much missing a restaurant that, from the street, is utterly forgettable but for the queue of people waiting to get in, from 9 am to 11 pm.

Just off the Place d'Italie, you quickly stumble into the Parisian rendition of Chinatown, and here, near a busy thoroughfare, you find Pho Banh Cuon 14. Many believe it serves Paris' best Vietnamese beef noodle soup. The very French actress (Indochine, etc.) Catherine Deneuve proclaimed it a favorite, with good reason. The beef broth is transcendent, as any good pho broth is--complex with star anise, cloves, and ginger, translucid and skimmed of all oil. In the broth, a swarm of white rice noodles and very thin slices of rare beef (or beef meatballs, or tripe...pretty nearly any combination of things you'd want from a cow is possible). Beside the bowl, a plate dangerously heaped with basil and other herbs, mung bean sprouts, lime quarters, a dollop of hoisin sauce. All this and some chili sauce (Sriracha style) go into the piping hot bowl.

Really though, before you dash out the door, book the flight, or hail the cab, you may need to adjust your expectations: zero atmosphere here, the waiters are fast, business-like and smiley friendliness is just not done (Asian no-nonsense in full gear). This might even be considered a bit of a dive in the City of Light. People come for the soup (and the banh cuon, which in France are referred to as raviolis vietnamiens). Yes, there are one or two other things on the menu, but people come to slurp Pho, maybe they even gobble some raviolis, and suck down some Vietnamese iced coffee. They pay, they leave. There's a line of people waiting with hungry eyes, and after sitting cheek to jowl, sometimes even on stools, eh, lingering, what's that?

Phở is for all intents and purposes the national dish of Vietnam. It is ubiquitous from Hanoi in the north, where it originated, to Saigon in the southern delta, where it was refined. The Vietnamese diaspora, with its largest population clustered in the United States, has introduced it there and in Canada with great success. There are far fewer Vietnamese in France, but they number at least 250,000--and many of these immigrants seem to own excellent restaurants in Paris, Lyon, Marseille...there's just nothing authentic remotely close to my home.

Logically enough, I could make this dish at home. I'd have to travel an hour to get the ingredients, but I could do it. If I were to make it, I'd follow the excellent recipe at Wandering Chopsticks. As you can see by her photos and description, this is a dish that takes serious time and patience. These days I'm short on both of those, so I'm left writing about this magnificently filling soup that is as nourishing to the soul as it is to the body.
Go to Pho Banh Cuon 14 if you find yourself in Paris. Do it in my name, then tell me about it. I'll live vicariously through your food adventure. Deal?
Restaurant Pho Banh Cuon 14
129 avenue de Choisy, 13th arrondissement
(Metro: Tolbiac)

Some good online resources for Pho and things Vietnamese and edible:
- Loving Pho is a truly encyclopedic site for all things pho-related.
- A new monthly food blogging event, called Delicious Vietnam, started by Melbourne-based A Food Lover's Journey and Arizona/Southern California's Ravenous Couple.
- Acclaimed author Andrea Nguyen's blog Viet World Kitchen is a trustworthy and comprehensive guide for those who are ready to get their hands dirty at the chopping board.


  1. it's a deal! but we'll need the airplane ticket to paris first.. :)

  2. Just drive the hour, make a big batch. Freeze some of the broth for the next time you have a craving. :)

    When I was in Stockholm, my friend made due with instant pho packets. It wasn't half bad. Pho in Stockholm was $20/bowl.

    When I was in Paris, I didn't know where the Vietnamese area was, but I did find a pho restaurant in the 7th arrondissement. I think they served it with thinly sliced lettuce. But given that I hadn't had Vietnamese food for weeks at that point, it was quite welcome nonetheless.

  3. Yes an hour drive is not that bad, but having no time nor patience may be your biggest enemy. Though personally if you go for it, I think you'll find that it is crazy easy to make your own pho. Like Wandering Chopsticks said, just go do it, and your freezer is your best pho friend.

  4. Hi RC,
    Hmm, I'll have to get back to you on that counter-proposal...

    Yes WC, everything in the Scandinavian countries is insanely expensive. I remember having two pizzas, and a pitcher of beer with three other people in Oslo. We paid over $120. Here in Western Europe things are priced more comparably to the US, pho included.

    Hello Loving Pho, thanks for stopping by! I really hope people make it to your site as you've built up a treasure trove of info. And OK, alright, you and WC have won me over, I'm making the hour-long trip. Anything for pho, right?? The freezer is NOT my best friend (pho or otherwise), however, as I'm the only person I know of here in the countryside with a relatively minute amount of freezer space. Yet another argument for (finally) investing in a deep-freeze...

  5. I'm sold and will get to Pho 14 some how or other!I usually go to a tiny dark place near Metro St Michel(there is a small Vietnamese community there believe it of not)
    I have not foraged in NYC and I should!
    Rather eat it in Paris :)

  6. If I ever go to Paris, I'll check it out, it sounds wonderful! I had Vietnamese for my birthday on Saturday. My neighborhood place is called Pho Cali and it is rapidly becoming my favorite restaurant. (I think I might have mentioned it here before.) Same deal: no atmosphere, harried waitstaff, but incredible food for very reasonable prices.

    My other favorite is a Thai place called Bangkok and they have the best tofu in town. I guess that being such a foodie, I feel like I can cook just about anything from any North or South American or European style restaurant. When I eat out, I want something that I CAN'T cook at home. Maybe I'll go check out that recipe....

  7. Hi Rose,
    I also seek out what I can't make myself at home. Knowing your ingenuity, I would recommend looking into the pho recipe, as I bet you just might surprise yourself...

  8. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'll keep you posted...

  9. Hi ParisBreakfasts, thanks for dropping by. I suspect there is some seriously tasty pho to be had in NYC. Do forage!

    Rose, carpe diem! Or rather, carpe pho recipe...(It's a hug in a bowl when you're feeling under the weather, you know...)


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