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
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.