During the weeks before I moved to Edmonton, I said a lot of goodbyes. Coming from Calgary, there were of course a lot of jokes and to-be-expected, “Why are you moving THERE?!”s. A colleague who was recently transplanted from Edmonton to Calgary even said to me, “You know Carmen, besides Pho and Donairs both Vancouver and Calgary are far superior in terms of food.”
YIKES! This whole blog was created to examine that claim… as a major foodie I am hopeful that I’ll suss out the food gems and passionate chefs in my new home. However, this specific post is to examine Pho – a dish that most people (even the Edmonton critics I know) seem to agree is a dish done fairly well here.
Being Asian, Pho is the quintessential comfort food. Afterall, if there are two items that are universally staples in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese cuisines they would be a brothy soup and rice. So soft rice noodles swimming in a piping hot broth screams soothing, comforting, and oh-so-satisfying.
Before formally moving here, I had visited Edmonton on average two weekends/month for 2 years (the joys of long distance relationship). Turning to recommendations of my boyfriend and forums like chowhound, urbanspoon, and yelp, I had gotten my pho fix during those visits at Pagolac, Ninh Kieu, Pho Tau Bay, and King Noodle.
My initial verdict – Pagolac has its specialties such as Beef Satay Noodles and Bun Bo Hue (spicy beef). The pho at Ninh Kieu was alright, better than many Vietnamese places but for a great bowl of Pho it really came down to Pho Tau Bay and King Noodle. Both these places focus their menus and efforts on Pho. It’s an admirable business model – focus one making one thing well and make lots of it. I promised myself that when I moved here I would go to both places in one weekend so I can do a true comparison of the two places. So here goes…
Although Tau Bay is somewhat of an institution in Edmonton and known for its yummy pho, it’s also infamous for its month long breaks. I had heard that Pho Tau Bay was closing for the summer and decided to cram in this post right before their closure.
To make the comparison fair, I ordered the same things at each location - the smaller sized Pho Tai Nam Gan Sach (Pho with rare beef, well done beef flank, tripe, and tendon) with an unsweetened lemon soda. I do think it’s important to note that although simple, AMAZING Pho is actually very complex. Firstly, because it is so simple, each ingredient has to be great. Secondly, people’s Pho preferences differ – noodle texture, broth flavours, types of meat, etc. I rated pho on the following components: broth, noodles, meat, side veggies (herbs & sprouts), and price. I will also note any considerations based on my own preferences.
At Tau Bay, the small size is called a Medium and the pho with everything I want is their special. The broth is probably the highlight of their pho – it has a sweet meaty depth to it and is just fatty enough to coat the tongue with a liquid velvety smoothness. Generally that perfect sweet-fatty combo is a sign that the broth is made with the perfect ratio of marrow bone vs. other bones. At King’s, my meal was a Small #3 (their special includes beef balls). King’s broth is also quite good with that sweet meaty flavour and seemed to have more fish sauce and cilantro flavours, but it didn’t have the same punch of umami flavour that Tau Bay’s did. King’s also uses larger pieces of onion compared with the thin slivers of onions at Tau Bay. Personally I think the thin slices at Tau Bay adds a nicer onion flavour. I’ll also note that until I ate at the two places back-to-back, I didn’t notice such flavour differences.
The noodles at King’s suited my taste better. I found that Tau Bay’s had a starchier, softer texture while King’s was still a soft rice noodle but the texture was slightly firmer with a chewier bite.
Both places served paltry herb and sprout plates – a small plate of sprouts with one sprig of Thai Basil. Makes me miss Pho Tai in Calgary where you get 3 varieties of herbs and a heaping veggie plate. However I will say that personally I prefer the lime and red pepper at Tau Bay over the green pepper and lemon served at King’s.
Meat wise, I liked that I got more of the rare beef from King’s. Virtually all the meat at Tau Bay came cooked (probably sat awhile before they brought it out). But I’ll give Tau Bay props for more flank and tendon (tendon is my favourite). At King’s I picked out one small piece of tendon while at Tau Bay I counted 5 or 6 pieces.
The other considerations I would put into my comparison is my lemon soda. I generally order my lemon soda unsweetened. I was pleasantly surprised when the lady at Tau Bay came by with my glass of lemon soda and also gave me the leftover soda in the can. I don’t expect much in terms of service at asian restaurants and especially when it comes to getting extras so this was a nice surprise (add one point).
Contrasted to King’s where I had to explain twice to the gentleman who took my order that I wanted my soda unsweetened and the soda still came tasting like a combo of Sprite and Fresca and was quite sweet. Seeing that there wasn’t any lemon residue (pulp, seeds, or slices) in my glass I’m left thinking it must have been poured from a can (minus one point).
Overall, the cost is quite similar my total at Tau Bay (including tax, before tip) came to $10.71 and $11.24 at King’s but with more meat and the extra soda, I have to say my lunch at Pho Tau Bay was better value.
So the actual points breakdown… Which means that for this foodie Pho Tau Bay scored 31 points while King Noodle scored 27 points. *sigh* the sad part about this post is that now I’m really craving a big bowl of Pho from Tau Bay but they are closed until end of August.
PS: Yes, I did give King Noodle an extra point for the amusement of listening to a little girl giggle for 20 mins over how awesome and funny the owner’s moustache is. Rumour has it he molds it into place every morning with a bit of Pho broth – urban legend?