Ruth Allan goes pho-to-pho with another Vietnamese spot having a moment
MANCHESTER's suburban dining scene is popping off right now, particularly when it comes to ethnic cuisines. New places like Sugo Pasta Kitchen and South Indian vegetarian, Lily’s, seem to open each week and ideas have even started to flow back the other way.
Pho is having a bit of moment in Manchester
West Didsbury’s Volta, for example, is teaching the city centre a thing or two about small plates with its Palace Hotel residence. And then there’s the big news this week that the team behind Altrincham Market are taking over the Mackie Mayor building in the Northern Quarter. Given the sheer number of openings in Levenshulme, Didsbury, Altrincham and Stockport, Chorlton has been slow on the uptake. But new, Vietnamese restaurant, PhoBowl, looks like a winner.
There are no prizes for guessing that pho (pronounced fuh) - big soupy bowls of noodles – is the house special. Aromatic broth is infused with star anise and chicken, finely marbled with flavoursome oil. Keep digging to find fresh mint, basil, finely sliced red chillis and half moons of red onion.
We try the traditional raw beef-based Pho Bo Tai (£7.50) and a Northern Vietnamese speciality, Bun Cha Ca (£8.50) called ‘The President’s Choice’ after Barak Obama chose this dish when he visited Hanoi. One of the stand-out dishes on the menu, the broth is filled with vermicelli rice noodles and spiced seafood patties. In America, Bun Cha Ca rivals pho in popularity and it’s only a matter of time until it catches on here. Notes of lemongrass and turmeric bring to mind everyone’s favourite snack, Thai fishcakes. What’s not to like?
In fact, pho is having a bit of moment in Manchester with outlets like Chinatown’s I Am Pho and Pho in the Corn Exchange opening one after another. Quality varies from pho to pho. For example, the stock used in PhoBowl’s pho and bun cha ca doesn’t have quite the same intensity as Pho’s 24-hour broth (read my review here), yet the small dishes are an unexpected strength.
We guzzle sweet, spicy salads (goi, £4.50), summer rolls with slivers of liverish duck breast (goi cuon, £4.50) and rice flour pancakes. Thanks to a mix-up we’re served both Vietnamese-style crispy chicken wings (£5) and crispy salt and pepper tofu (a quite remarkable £4) too.
Wings are punchy – like KFC on heat – while the tofu is salty as a dog and airy as honeycomb. If you like the idea of crisps crossed with croutons, or love those hard little nuggets in the bottom of your cone of chips, you won’t be disappointed.
Elsewhere, Vietnamese pancakes (plain, £5) are appetisingly sculptural. Stir-fried beansprouts and onions wrapped in a light pancake, that’s so soft it could be soufflé. Ours contains bonus slices of fried tofu, all crisp on the outside and melting in the middle.
Beansprouts used to be a standard in my mum’s stir fries, adding little more than a whiff of mould. Yet they add contrast to these pancakes – and come into their own when paired with fish sauce. Vietnamese is a saucy cuisine in general. Tables are stocked with hoisin, sriracha, chilli paste and fish sauce. Choose any: they all work with the soup-based dishes. I only wish we had time to eat more. The marinated beef stew with coriander (£8), perhaps, or the grilled lemongrass pork chops, both from the Vietnamese rice dish selection (com). Or even Vietnamese bahn mi baguettes (£4.95), with fillings like pickled carrots and BBQ pork.
To drink, there’s iced Vietnamese coffee and green tea or filter coffee with a twist of caramel. Wine is best left in the fridge, though, as the owners appear to have complied the list exclusively from the local corner shop. Campo Viejo Rioja, for example, and Canaletto Pinot Grigio. We make do with Fiore Rosa Pinot Grigio (£18), which is so lacking in character that it could be Ribena.
The interior is relaxed: canteen-style seating meets slightly iffy lighting. They’ve obviously put all their pennies in the kitchen. As such, it’s the kind of place you want to drop into when the mood strikes; something of as issue when it’s hard to get a table. As well as the usual Chorlton types, PhoBowl has a big ‘fitspo’ following, thanks to naturally gluten-free and vegan options, and protein-packed treats like summer rolls with chicken and avocado.
The management has come up with a clever solution. Simply leave your phone number with the young team, go for a drink locally and they’ll call you when a space becomes free. With no obligation to drink the house wine, and great food guaranteed, it’s a win-win situation.
Pho Bowl, 520 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton M21 9AW. Tel: 0161 8816110.
Food: 7/10 (pancakes 7, salad 7, tofu 8, summer rolls 6, pho 7, bun ca cha 7)
PLEASE NOTE: All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-10 stay in with Netflix, 11-12 if you're passing, 13-14 good, 15-16 very good, 17-18 excell