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Ngon Pho dives headfirst into diverse dishes

The Ha Noi restaurant, which is divided into five sections, reimagines street food and serves up Vietnamese dishes from all three regions.

Savoury treats: An assortment of traditional Vietnamese dessert cakes.
Savoury treats: An assortment of traditional Vietnamese dessert cakes.

My aunt Tran Minh Nguyet from Los Angeles in the United States, returned to Ha Noi last week after more than 30 years and told me that she missed traditional Vietnamese food a lot.

After a short discussion, we decided to visit the newly opened Ngon Pho Restaurant located at the Aeon Mall Long Bien Trading Centre at the northern end of Ha Noi’s Vinh Tuy Bridge.

Soon after reaching there, Ngon Pho, one of Quan An Ngon chains, struck us for its hidden attractions with genuine designs and beautiful decoration of lights and food stands.

We thought we were entering real culinary streets downtown such as Tong Duy Tan Street in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter. The space was also decorated with electric poles and small signboards recalling memories of an old Ha Noi.

We were very happy because we had chosen the right place where my aunt could enjoy traditional food from three regions.

My aunt asked restaurant manager Dong Van Cuong to show us around first. “It makes me remember the past when I often enjoyed food on the streets,” Nguyet said.

The restaurant is divided into five sections: served, self-served, food coupon, BBQ&seafood and LyS Cafe & Bistro.

Nguyet told me that we should try the food in each section. Cuong gave us a menu of hundreds of dishes and recommended that we start with banh xeo (Vietnamese fried crepes with shrimp & pork). We had to get in a queue to get two coupons, each priced at about VND60,000 (nearly $3) per plate, after which we went to a kitchen stand to pick up the food.

The crepe was so fragrant and delicious. Cuong advised us that it should be eaten hot.

We tried the cake’s surface which was as brittle as glass while its dumpling was soft and fatty. It included mixed pork, shrimp, green bean sprouts and onion.

Cuong helped us to wrap it with a salad, and basil in a rice paper. The food was tastier when we dipped it into a bowl of sauce which was also so tasty that after a while, we asked for more.

“I feel that the banh xeo here is quite similar to its origin in the central province of Binh Dinh where I had once eaten when I was young,” Nguyet said.

After that Cuong led us to enjoy lau bong in the served area which attracted us with its colourful stands which had mixed fresh fruits with yoghurt, and two big baskets of fresh flowers carried by a beautiful girl in a brown traditional Vietnamese robe.

Sweet and sour: Snakehead fish sour soup, a popular dish often eaten during summer in all three regions.

Nguyet was so absorbed in such a beautiful setting that I had to call her several times to go to a reserved table where a young stewardess politely bending forward asked us whether she could serve us.

Very quickly, she and two others appeared with a hotpot, a plate of fresh hemibagrus fish and a very big plate of 15 kinds of flowers and vegetables collected from the country’s three regions. They include hoa thien ly (telosma cordata), hoa dien dien(sesbania sesban), spinach, la he (shallot), Indian taro, violet cabbage and many others.

The package was VND365,000 ($17).

Cuong told us that it was a new dish and one of main courses at Ngon Pho.

“Almost all the eaters are interested in ordering the hotpot, because it is particularly enjoyable in winter, and it is the only-served here.”

We were so excited that we urged the waiter to turn the cooker to its highest temperature. We did not have to wait long, as the hotpot boiled over fast. The waiter put the fish and then the flowers and vegetables into the pot.

As the steam rose, so did the fragrant and aromatic flavours from the pot. After several minutes, the waiter served us each a piece of hemibagrus fish which was fresh, tasty and crispy.

“We make the broth from hemibagrus fish heads and shrimp heads which are ordered from the northern province of Hoa Binh and are being kept at our special tanks in the restaurant to ensure freshness when we serve our patrons,” Cuong said.

Apart from the fish, I enjoyed the mixed flowers and vegetables a lot because it generated a very good appetite.

Despite Cuong’s advice that we still had many more good dishes to come, I could not control my craving for the food, to eat one more bowl of vermicelli.

Nguyet was very pleased with the food, and satisfactorily remarked that the hotpot served her with specialities from the northern, central and southern regions of the country.

There were still many dishes that I intended to invite my aunt Nguyet to try such as stir-fried beef cube’s with French fries (VND110,000/ dish), grilled tiger prawn (VND135,000/dish) and stir-fried fragrant sea snail with lemongrass and chili (VND170,000/dish) as well as fresh spring rolls with shrimp, pork and salad (VND19,000 each).

Nguyet said she was nearly full but I told her that she should try some more. Before going to LyS Cafe, we packed our dinner by sharing a bowl of pho (VND55,000 or $2.2).

The traditional pho bo (noodle soup with beef) Ba Lau has been sold by Lau for more than 50 years in Ha Noi’s Long Bien Bridge near Dong Xuan Market. It is now managed by Lau’s only maternal grandchild, Pham Thi Bich Hanh, who is also the founder of Quan An Ngon chains.

Although being full, I still enjoyed the pho for its soft, aromatic, tasty and meaty beef and particularly the pure sweet broth which is stewed from only cow’s ribs, without using spices such as anise and cinnamon bark, common ingredients of other pho shops.

As a result, more than a thousand patrons enjoy Pho Ba Lau for breakfast every morning and between 7,000 and 8,000 guests visited Ngon Pho every day, said Hanh, giving us a map of Ngon Pho which clearly shows each food section to serve guests and visitors.Asked where she ordered the beef, Hanh said she had signed contracts with farmers in provinces such as Lai Chau to raise their cows with organic food to supply her with the beef.

“It would be helpful for me next time when I visit the restaurant again,” said Nguyet.

Cuong then invited us to LyS Cafe & Bistro for a dessert or a drink. He advised us to try a kind of Southern dessert, che suong sa hat luu made of jelly, water chestnut-tapioca pearls and coconut cream (VND25,000/glass).

“This is the first time, that I have enjoyed a dessert, which is special and can cool any heat in my body,” Nguyet said.

We were really satisfied with the Vietnamese dining experience in the restaurant.

Nguyet told me she would return here before she departs for the United States because, “I feel that the image of Ngon Pho is like my homeland Ha Noi and that our relatively short time at the restaurant was all about the ultimate simple pleasures – delicious, tasty and aromatic food.”