The Pho Burger at Relish & Sons
“It sounds weird to me,” said my Vietnamese phở expert when I first mentioned the concept of a pho burger.
With the proper Vietnamese pronunciation, the pho burger sounds downright rude.
Not everyone who orders the dish at an American burger joint in Ho Chi Minh City gets the saucy pun, however. Most non-Vietnamese rhyme phở with “show”, while the Vietnamese word should sound a bit like “fur” with a swooping questioning tone.
Created in April 2015 by Australian chef and co-owner Andy O’Brien as a seasonal special to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, the pho burger proved so popular that it’s remained on the menu of Relish & Sons ever since.
But to my favourite phở purist, usually known here on the blog as Darling Man, the pho burger is “just wrong”.
It was served with a knife and fork, which Darling Man picked up as he tried to work out how to tackle the towering stack of noodle-bun, fried egg, beef, lettuce and onion.
I urged him to eat it with his hands, like a burger. Which he did. Awkwardly.
He put the burger back down again.
“The bun is thick and chewy and when you bite it it all gets stuck in your teeth and you can’t taste the meat,” he said with a frown.
He used the knife and fork to dissect the burger and sample the various components.
“The meat is grass-fed beef,” he said. “It’s actually really nice.”
The side serving of fragrant phở stock with strong notes of roasted onion also got a thumbs up, as did the dipping bowl of hoi sin and Siracha sauce.
The fried egg gave Darling Man pause.
“Sometimes phở has an egg,” he said. “But it’s usually a raw egg. It’s for working girls.”
Somewhat stupidly, I asked why working girls ate raw eggs.
“So they can produce more juice,” he said around a mouthful of pho burger. Oh. THAT kind of working girl.
Darling Man, who has scoured Ho Chi Minh City for the best phở for our Saigon Street Eats food tour business, really had a problem with the phở bun.
Relish and Sons’ pho burger could be improved if they used a xôi chiên (fried sticky rice) bun, he suggested, acknowledging that that wouldn’t really be a pho burger at all.
“The selling point is the phở. But the phở noodles should be drier and crispier,” he said.
“The bun should be thinner, with a texture like phở áp chảo,” he said, referring to a dish of crispy pan-fried phở noodles topped with beef.
Ms Nu, from Relish & Sons’ marketing department, was absolutely horrified at Darling Man’s reaction. Her eyes looked panicked and her eyebrows were almost disappearing into her hairline, although the rest of her face remained calm and professional.
She’d been sent over to check on us after one of the co-owners and I recognised each other on the stairs. I’d interviewed him about another of his Ho Chi Minh City restaurants for my guidebook research in 2014.
“Some people really love it,” Ms Nu said of the pho burger. “Some people say it’s strange to have a burger without a bread bun. Everybody is different.”
She looked so worried that I had to point out that a phở fanatic like Darling Man wasn’t really the target market. He wasn’t interested in eating it for himself. He was doing it for love — because I don’t eat beef but I was intrigued by the concept of the pho burger. He was being my test-eater.
I called in a Western palate for an alternate opinion. My American friend Jenny, who is a newcomer to Vietnam and Vietnamese cuisine, said her pho burger was AH-MAZ-ING!
She loved everything about it – the flavours, the textures and the presentation. Jenny ate her burger with the cutlery.
“I’m not usually an eat-burger-with-cutlery kind of lady,” she said. “But I just had to be. I picked up the burger and it was delicious, but I had to put it down again to try the Pasteur Street craft beer paired with the burger. Priorities, you know. And then it fell apart, so I had to use the knife and fork.”
As for me, I tucked into one of the monthly specials: soft shell crab, wasabi mayonnaise, red cabbage kimchi on a squid ink sesame seed bun.
It was AWESOME! And I think Darling Man may have had a spot of ordering envy.
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5 years ago