ST's food critics share their picks of 7 Vietnamese eateries for pho, banh mi and more

Beef pho from Mrs Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant along Beach Road.
Beef pho from Mrs Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant along Beach Road.PHOTO: ST FILE

There's no need to travel to Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi for a good bowl of pho, or your favourite banh xeo Vietnamese pancake. Singapore now has plenty of Vietnamese eateries with a range of food offerings from across Vietnam.

Take your pick from salads and spring rolls, to noodles and banh mi, as well as other main dishes and desserts.

The Straits Times' food critics share seven of their favourite Vietnamese food haunts, listed in no order of preference.

1. Tan Hsueh Yun recommends

FAT SAIGON BOY


Barbecued Vietnamese chicken with vermicelli from Fat Saigon Boy. PHOTO: FAT SAIGON BOY

Every time I am in a Vietnamese restaurant, I order Pho Bo because I am obsessed with finding the perfect bowl of Vietnamese beef noodles. But at Fat Saigon Boy, a contemporary Australian-Vietnamese restaurant, the other offerings are so tempting, I skip my beloved noodles.

Among the Viet Tapas (all $10++), Pig On A Stick boasts juicy, moreish pork balls, but I wish the green chilli chutney nuts assert themselves more. With the Soft Shell Crab Sliders, crisp pieces of the crab are tucked into perfectly greaseless, deep-fried mantou.


Soft Shell Crab Sliders from Fat Saigon Boy. ST PHOTO: TAN HSUEH YUN

Bun Rieu ($15++) is swimming with umami and not as spicy as the menu description suggests. Floating in the thick tomato broth are soft crab and chicken meatballs and strips of beancurd puffs (taupok). Thickish rice noodles complete the dish.

Also very good is The Signature Pork ($15++), with strips of expertly charred pork that boast crisp edges and juicy meat. The yuzu nuoc cham tastes faintly of the Japanese citrus, but the regular fish sauce dip would do just as well.

For drinks, Coco Pineapple & Mint ($3++), a mix of coconut water and pineapple juice with crushed mint, is endlessly cooling. I just wish they'd give less ice and more drink.

WHERE: Fat Saigon Boy, 14 Ann Siang Road, tel: 6221-6784

MRT: Telok Ayer

OPEN: 11am to 3pm (Monday); 11am to 3pm, 6 to 10pm (Tuesday to Thursday); 11am to 3pm, 6pm to midnight (Friday and Saturday); closed on Sunday

INFO: Go to www.facebook.com/fatsaigonboy.sg/

2. Wong Ah Yoke recommends

SAIGON ALLEY


PHOTO: SAIGON ALLEY

Saigon Alley at Novena Gardens is another place to get acquainted with Vietnamese street food through its salads, spring rolls, noodles, banh mi and main dishes.

With an almost entirely Vietnamese staff both in the kitchen and in the dining room, you will feel like you are eating in Ho Chi Minh City - except that English is much better understood here.

The beef pho broth here is rather light, more like a chicken stock - albeit a tasty one - than a beef one. It doesn't quite go with the toppings of Australian beef slices, beef brisket and beef balls in the Beef Combination Pho ($14).


Pho and Vietnamese prawn roll set from Saigon Alley. PHOTO: SAIGON ALLEY

The Spicy Australian Beef Noodles ($14), however, is a better bet. This is a Hue-style noodle dish from central Vietnam and, despite the name, is not very spicy. The broth has a fuller flavour and the hint of spice makes it very comforting on a rainy day. It comes with generous toppings of sliced beef and brisket, as well as fresh herbs and vegetables such as mint, basil and beansprouts.

The other beef dishes are good too.

Try the Northern Vietnamese Beef Salad ($12). There is a good amount of tender grilled beef tossed with salad greens, julienned carrot, crunchy raw onions and local celery in a spicy fish sauce dressing. The flavours of salty, sour and spicy are more subtle than in a Thai salad and yet distinct enough to stand out.


Northern Vietnamese Beef Salad from Saigon Alley. PHOTO: SAIGON ALLEY

The Vietnamese Luc Lac ($15) is another dish not to be missed. It may seem like an ordinary stir-fry of beef cubes with garlic and pepper, but the flavourful cubes of beef are juicy and the sauce is delicious. Onion slices in the dish are caramelised in the hot wok and become sweet and crisp, while wedges of tomatoes provide acidity.

Both the spring rolls I have tried - Fresh Vietnamese Tiger Prawn Paper Rolls ($8) and Crab Spring Rolls ($8) - are better than anything I have eaten outside Vietnam.

These are plump with large prawns that are clearly visible through the translucent paper. The generous amount of the shellfish means you easily taste their sweetness too.

The deep-fried Crab Spring Rolls are more fragrant and packed with sweet crabmeat in rice paper that is fried to a golden brown. The best way to eat one is to pick it up with your fingers, dip it in the accompanying chilli sauce and bite off a little at a time. The filling is steaming hot inside, so proceed with caution.

The Roasted Chicken With Vietnamese Fish Sauce ($12) is another tasty dish, with the boneless pieces of chicken thigh well-marinated and cooked just right, leaving the meat smooth and juicy.

For dessert check out the Vietnamese Coffee Jelly With Ice Cream ($6). The springy jelly is infused with the aroma of the strong coffee that Vietnam is known for and goes well with the scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The Fried Banana Stuffed With Ice Cream And Topped With Mixed Fruits ($5), is good too. It's rolled in a spring roll wrapper and deep-fried to a crisp, which makes a nice contrast to the soft banana inside. The ice cream is not stuffed, but scooped over the rolls, which remain crispy longer that way.

WHERE: Saigon Alley, 273 Thomson Road, Novena Gardens,01-06, tel: 6256-0261

MRT: Novena

OPEN: noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 11pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

INFO: Go to www.hiddendoorconcepts.com/saigon-alley

3. Rebecca Lynne Tan recommends

LITTLE VIETNAM RESTAURANT AND CAFE


A spread of food from Little Vietnam Restaurant and Cafe in Guillemard Road. ST PHOTO: REBECCA LYNNE TAN

Grandlink Square, a small shopping centre and residential complex at the end of Guillemard Road, is one of those buildings you are not likely to notice.

There is nothing particularly enticing about this dimly lit, blueish-grey building with glass panels. The eclectic mix of tenants includes food and beverage outlets, a dance studio, a karaoke bar and snooker parlour, and retail shops such as one that specialises in laminate and vinyl flooring.

One establishment that draws in the crowds is Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, a charming eatery whose patrons are as colourful as the mall's tenant mix.

The deep-fried spring rolls, or cha gio, here are fantastic.

For $5, you get five fat, tasty rolls that have been fried to a crisp, each generously filled with chicken, glass noodles and vegetables.

These crusty treats are great with beer, but to drink alcohol, make sure you get a table inside - the restaurant does not serve beer outdoors.

Other appetisers include chao tom ($5), minced prawn and pork served on a sugarcane stick; and goi ngo sen ($6), a salad of lotus stems, prawns and chicken tossed in a tangy dressing and served with rice crackers, peanuts and fried shallots - all are delicious and good value for money.

There is also crispy deep-fried quail ($15), cockles in various types of sauces ($6) and a light yet hearty chicken and beef pho (from $6).

But what I highly recommend here, is the bun thit nuong ($6) or grilled pork chop on rice vermicelli with vegetables, and the bun ga nuong xa ($6), grilled lemongrass chicken on rice vermicelli. The pork is delicious and fragrant, and the chicken well-marinated and tender.

A heavy meal for two would cost about $13 to $15 a person including non-alcoholic drinks such as iced tea.

Be prepared to wait during peak dining times.

WHERE: Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Grandlink Square, 01-25, tel: 6547-8587

MRT: Paya Lebar

OPEN: noon to 11.30pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday. Last order for food at 10.30pm.

INFO: Call or go to www.facebook.com/ Littlevietnamrestaurant/

4. Tan Hsueh Yun recommends

SO PHO


Pho with sliced beef, brisket and beef balls from So Pho. PHOTO: KATRINA HOLDINGS

Vietnamese food is not only about pho and I love the breadth and depth of the cuisine. Still, I am drawn to the beef noodles because of how comforting it is.

When I lived in Sydney, Australia, which has many good Vietnamese restaurants, the owner of one of them told me that she and her husband drink a bowl of pho broth every day, and they almost never fall ill.

Since then, I have made it a point to have pho when I am feeling poorly.

I wake up with a scratchy throat one day and decide that I have to have pho for dinner. So I head to So Pho, which is close to the office, for a bowl of Pho Bo Dac Biet ($10.80).

It is endlessly satisfying. I remember dining at the chain's Paragon restaurant and its pho was unremarkable.

The version at this branch is hearty but not heavy, and the noodles are topped with slices of brisket and beef balls.

WHERE: So Pho Novena Square, 238 Thomson Road, 02-43/54, tel: 6258-4220. The chain also has six other outlets including Paragon, 290 Orchard Road, B1-20, tel: 6235-0414; Waterway Point, 83 Punggol Central, 01-28, tel: 6385-8378; and Parkway Parade, 80 Marine Parade Road, 03-30D, tel: 6348-9679

MRT: Novena, Orchard, Punggol and Dakota

OPEN: All outlets open from 11am to 10pm, daily.

INFO: Go to sopho.com.sg

5. Rebecca Lynne Tan recommends

MRS PHO


A bowl of pho from Mrs Pho. PHOTO: ST FILE

In the row of shophouses along Beach Road opposite The Concourse is a humble Vietnamese eatery called Mrs Pho.

Expect the usual Vietnamese staples of spring rolls, both fried and fresh, as well as chicken and beef pho. It also serves Bun Thit Nuong, or rice vermicelli with pork chop and spring rolls, and Hu Tieu Bo Kho or stewed beef noodles.

Highlights here include the stir-fried cockles ($6.50), tossed in garlic, chilli and plenty of lard. The cockles are full, plump and juicy. Dip them, along with cubes of crispy lard, into fiery chilli paste for a hit of spicy pleasure.


Stir-fried cockles tossed in garlic chilli and lard from Mrs Pho. PHOTO: ST FILE

I usually add condiments such as chilli to my pho depending on my mood, but I decide to be a purist when the bowl of beef pho (from $7.90) arrives.

The broth is light but still hearty and flavoursome. I like that it is not sweet, unlike some other versions. My main gripe is it could be served with more herbs - more mint, basil and coriander, please.

The Bun Thit Nuong ($7.90), on the other hand, is disappointing, mostly because it comes with a disproportionate amount of toppings: a tiny piece of pork chop, just one spring roll and not enough pickles and veggies. Then again, it could be a case of too much noodle. But flavour-wise, it is pretty decent.

Wash the dishes down with a cold glass of Saigon Salty Lemonade ($2) or a fresh coconut ($3.50).

WHERE: Mrs Pho, 349 Beach Road, opposite The Concourse

MRT: Nicoll Highway

OPEN: 11am to 10pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday, tel: 6292-0018

INFO: Go to www.mrspho.com

6. Wong Ah Yoke recommends

PHO STOP


A bowl of pho from Pho Stop in Tanjong Pagar. PHOTO: PHO STOP

Tanjong Pagar may be a food haven, but it does not come readily to mind when you think of Vietnamese food.

Still, that is where I find one of my favourite versions of pho, the Vietnamese beef noodles that I love for being so flavourful and light at the same time.

But many places here are stingy with the meat and some, even with the fresh basil, lime and beansprouts that are often served separately in basketfuls in eateries in Ho Chi Minh City.

Not so at Pho Stop in Tanjong Pagar Road.

The noodles come with a decent amount of toppings, with choices such as sliced ribeye ($10.30), beef brisket ($10.30), beef balls ($10.30) or a combination of them (from $10.50). Those who do not eat beef can go for the chicken pho ($10).

The stock for the beef has good body and the accompanying plate of vegetables provides the crunch required to freshen up the dish.

There are good side dishes too, such as Deep-fried Spring Rolls ($5.10 for four) and Pho Stop's Fish Cakes ($5.60 for five).

This is certainly a place worth stopping at.

WHERE: Pho Stop, 72 Tanjong Pagar Road, tel: 6534-8178

MRT: Tanjong Pagar/Outram

OPEN: 11.30am to 9.30pm daily

INFO: Go to www.phostop.sg

7. Rebecca Lynne Tan recommends

SANDWICH SAIGON CAFE


Rice noodles with grilled pork and a spring roll, from Sandwich Saigon Cafe. PHOTO: ST FILE

This is my go-to spot for banh mi or a Vietnamese baguette sandwich.

The pork meatball ($7) sandwich is nothing short of amazing.

The petite baguette is crusty and light as air. Filled with moreish, tasty meatballs topped with julienned pickled carrot, cucumber and sprigs of coriander with a touch of mayonnaise, it is heaven in a bite. You need two to feel satisified.

There are plenty of other sandwich fillings to choose from including pork chop, fish sardine, roast beef , pork belly and ham, and garlic chicken.

The bun thit nuong or rice noodles with grilled pork and a spring roll ($10) is also very good. Essentially, the dish consists of room-temperature rice noodles, with pickled carrot, cucumber, lettuce and peanuts, served with warm grilled pork and a hot spring roll.

Dress the noodles with vinegary dipping sauce and tuck in. The dish is fresh and comforting.

I could easily eat here at least twice a week.

WHERE: Sandwich Saigon Cafe, 93 East Coast Road, opposite I12 Katong , tel: 6345-3849

MRT: Paya Lebar

OPEN: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 10pm (weekdays), 11.30am to 10pm (weekends)

INFO: Go to www.sandwichsaigon.com