On one of our first days in Hanoi, my boyfriend and I stumbled on the pho cuon establishments on Truc Bach Lake. In addition to pho cuon, which seemed like an obvious order as it was listed at the top of every menu, we noticed everyone around us tucking into piles of fried pillows topped with saucy meat and greens. Clueless, fresh Hanoians, we awkwardly pointed to each of the tables around us until we could make ourselves understood and received a pillow pile of our own. And that was how I first discovered pho chien phong.
If pho cuon is one of the healthiest options of Hanoi fare, pho chien phong is one of the least. A theoretically simple dish made by deep frying sheets of pho, pho chien phong is another Truc Bach staple. In this neighbourhood, just as you’d be hard-pressed to find an establishment not doling out pho cuon, these fried pillows are a menu fixture, with minor but distinguishable differences from one joint to the next.
Everyone has their favourite spot in Truc Bach, but mine is the one at 16 Ngu Xa, right on the corner of the lake (insofar as round lakes have corners). Here, the pho chien phong is topped not only with beef and greens, but with mushrooms, tomatoes and a generous sprinkle of black pepper.
I tried to tap the restaurant’s abundance of servers and cooks for information on the history, recipe and technique behind pho chien phong, but I got the sense that the beauty is in the dish’s simplicity. How do you make it? “See this? You fry it.” How long has it been around? “Awhile.” Who made the recipe that you use here? “Old people.”
Yet while pho chien phong has humble beginnings and simple explanations, the dish itself is far from modest. Small stacks of pho — before it’s sliced into noodles — slightly larger than a postage stamp are tossed in a wok of bubbling hot oil. The lightness of the rice paper, when it meets the fiery depths of oil, causes it to balloon up until the stacks have risen in height about ten-fold. Golden and crispy, these cushions are scattered on a plate and smothered in thick sauce, beef that’s been marinating in a mix of MSG, sugar and other spices, and veggies.
Our photographer, translator and I all agree that the best way to eat a pho chien phong pillow is to poke a crater in the middle with your chopsticks, fill the said crater with as many saucy toppings as can fit, dip it in a mixture of fish and hot sauces, and stuff it in your mouth.
But really, when you have fried pho pillows topped with beef and gravy, you can do no wrong.
For the best pho chien phong that money can buy, head to 16 Ngu Xa, Truc Bach, Hanoi. A plate of the good stuff cost VND60,000. You won’t be disappointed