At No. 13 Do Luc in Hanoi's French Quarter, giant stockpots bubble through the night to keep up with demand at Pho Thin, which opens at 5.30 am every morning.
Founded by former painter Nguyen Trong Thin in 1979, the steamy shop attracts queues for its unique pho, which – unusually – sees sliced beef stir-fried in garlic before being added to the broth.
In March, a Japanese office worker who fell in love with Pho Thin opened a branch in Tokyo. After reading about his success, Duyen Le Ky and her husband, originally from Ho Chi Minh, decided to bring Pho Thin to Melbourne.
After a visit from Thin to approve the ingredients and family recipe, Pho Thin opened on the corner of Hardware Lane and Lonsdale Street, just six months after the Tokyo store. The main difference between the original recipe and Duyen's is that the Melbourne branch is free from MSG and uses Australian beef.
Duyen says, "Our vision focuses on two factors: the first one is we want to bring the most authentic, original pho in Vietnam to Melbourne, and the second is that we focus on healthy food with no MSG."
“We want to bring the most authentic, original pho in Vietnam to Melbourne…”
This is her first foray into hospitality. Back in Ho Chi Minh, she owns a women's fashion store while her husband imports wine. The couple travels around Vietnam trying different regional dishes and the first time Duyen tried Pho Thin was about five years ago. "I'm from Saigon, so I hadn't tried the northern style. The first time I tried I thought it was really weak, but my husband loved it, so the second time he asked me to go there and I tried it again," she admits. "The more I tried it the more I liked it, and now every time I go to Hanoi, I go to Pho Thin."
Duyen noticed a gap in the Australian market for the northern-style pho she's learned to love. Most pho here, she says, is southern, which has a stronger flavour with more herbs and spices, bean sprouts, basil and hoisin sauce. The northern style is subtler; Pho Thin only adds spring onion, coriander and its famous, garlic-fried beef.
On the tables are house-made condiments such as fresh chilli sauce and pickled garlic slices. Something less common in Australia is the option to add quay (fried dough sticks, also known as youtiao in China) for dipping. There are four other pho options on the menu, and Duyen recommends trying the red wine beef, too.
"The more I tried it the more I liked it, and now every time I go to Hanoi, I go to Pho Thin."
Duyen owns the rights to Pho Thin in Australia and New Zealand. The plan is to expand but for now, she's focusing on keeping queues happy at Hardware Lane. When she talks about Pho Thin there's a sense of patriotism – of responsibility to do the original justice.
"When I open a business about pho, it's because of my Vietnamese background but it is for everyone to enjoy. I love this restaurant and I just – " she inhales deeply, suddenly overwhelmed.
"Although I'm very busy and get tired, I try to put myself last to bring the best food here. A lot of people work near here and they come back every day, sometimes two times a day… they come because they miss Vietnam and want to have a bowl of pho."
Shop C, 389 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne (enter via Hardware Lane)
Daily 10:30am – 8:30pm
It will take a few hours of simmering for the beef broth cook to reach its full flavour level, but you’ll be rewarded with a deeply fragrant, deeply satisfying bowl of noodles.
Pho made with Vegemite might sound slightly terrifying, but the spread we know and love actually provides the perfect salty base for a delicious, albeit not-your-average pho broth. #BringBackTheClassics