Berlin’s original Asian noodle soup is making a comeback
Ah, pho. Hard to pronounce yet easy to find – on street corners all over Berlin.
For a long time, it was the go-to Asian noodle soup for Berliners. In recent years, however, Japanese ramen places have been gaining popularity and excitement – as well as newspaper inches – as the buzz around the Vietnamese pho is seeming to fade.
Whilst both noodle-based soups, pho differs greatly from ramen. Pho is made with rice noodles, as opposed to the wheat noodles found in ramen. It’s lighter, fragrant and freshened with citrus and herbs, whereas ramen is more substantial, savoury and heavy.
Pho – Berlin’s original broth-based bowl of goodness
Pho, like the Vietnamese folks who make it, has been a resident of Berlin since the early 1980s. It arrived here when Vietnamese workers came in their thousands to live and work with their Communist comrades in East Berlin. The dish (as well our other Vietnamese favourites) has been Berlin’s Asian food of choice ever since.
Asian food in Berlin is steadily improving, and Vietnamese cuisine is no different. We recently found a place that serves up the kind of pho that could bring the dish back to the forefront of the Berliner table. It’s called… PHO.
PHO claims to make great, authentic pho
To gain an appreciation for this simple dish, we visited PHO on Adalberstraße, a minute or so from Kottbusser Tor.
An exceptionally competitive area for food in Berlin, PHO’s exterior, which contrasts rustic wooden panels with bombastic neon lights, makes you take notice as you pass.
As you step inside, you immediately leave Kreuzberg behind. Low lighting, black metal grills and more neon, the restaurant hummed with activity as hungry post-work Kreuzbergers jostled to secure a place. A huge neon sign loomed heavy over us, stating ‘This You Need’.
We decided to find that out for ourselves.
Fresh, steaming phos in minutes
Minutes after ordering, our phos arrived in ornate dark blue bowls. Fast, fresh food, assembled in no time. How it should be.
We chose the Bun Bao and Buddha Bowl.
Every bowl of broth in Berlin seems to be going by the name of ‘Buddha’, and it’s getting a bit old.
I’ll let PHO’s Buddha Bowl off though, because the salty hot noodle soup with thick slabs of delectable tofu offered inner peace in ways only the Buddha could.
Shimeji mushrooms add a meaty texture (“something to sink your teeth into”), and the soup is well-herbed and sharp with spice, meaning that every spoonful has a bit of everything, flavour-wise (including that intial “blimey, it’s too hot, I have to wait another few seconds”).
In the Bun Bao, there was no room to move – for atop the meaty broth was a colourful mix of all the good, healthy stuff that’ll keep your body robust over the winter months: spring onions, red chilis and thin slices of ginger. Below, beneath the murky depths of the meaty broth, lay delicious chunks of torn chicken, prawns, Shiitake mushrooms and a boiled egg.
This bowl was packed with ingredients, from fresh vegetables providing a crunchy counterpoint to the chicken and noodles, and chili, citrus and ginger cutting through it all, making it an extremely fresh yet rich and satisfying experience.
Despite the ingredients, these dishes never felt heavy. They felt… revitalising?
As we were slurping on the last of our phos, Kan, the enthusiastic owner of PHO, settled down next to us to see how we were getting on.
Born in Vietnam but having spent his childhood in Lichtenberg near the Dong Xuan Centre, Kan’s been surrounded by the Berlin Vietnamese community his whole life.
He opened the first PHO back in 2012 (there are three locations now – in Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Mitte), with the Kreuzberg location appearing in December in 2018.
Passionate about Vietnamese food, Kan explained to us that the kind of pho his restaurants serve is similar to the pho found in Northern Vietnam. He told us it’s the use of blanched whole green onion, and the coriander, garlic, chilli sauce and quẩy garnishes that make the pho specific to this region. Playing an active role in his restaurants is important to Kan, as well as the fact that he mixes the spices used in PHO himself.
Let’s put pho back on the hipster Berlin map.
‘This You Need’ – we couldn’t’ve put it better ourselves. PHO is leading the charge, bringing phos outside of the bland, Pan Asian places and back onto the culinary map. Eat a piece of Berlin history, have a pho.
Photos: Radi H