I was surprised when our chief editor told me that we had not yet covered a full story on pho ga — Hanoi chicken noodles. To me, pho ga is one of the most basic staple dishes available in local street food. And that makes people food writers like me think that it must have been written about long ago. Yet it hasn’t.
To Hanoians, eating pho ga is part of the daily routine. Served for breakfast, it’s also great for a quick lunch when you have to rush back to work. Or if you skip your lunch and find yourself craving food mid-afternoon, nothing is better than having a steaming bowl of pho ga sat in front of you! I’ve even enjoyed it while out riding my bike in the cold of night — it’s the kind of dish you can grab at a street-side noodle stall. As Hanoians can eat pho ga all day (and all night), people consider it a basic part of their life — it’s almost taken for granted. However, when it comes to perfecting the taste, it is not that simple to excel at this simple dish.
Although good pho ga eateries can be found everywhere in the capital, for me, one in particular is a standout — Pho Ga Ba Lam. Just off the junction of Nam Ngu and Phan Boi Chau, it is the joint close to the legendary Pho Bo Kiem, the beef noodle joint that many feel sells the most addictive bowl of soup in Hanoi.
In the 1980s, Pho Ga Ba Lam was a well-known destination in Hanoi. “At that time, it was a ‘privilege’ if someone invited you to go to Pho Ga Ba Lam,” wrote the acclaimed Vietnamese writer, Nguyen Quang Thieu.
Grandma Lam, the eatery owner and chef, was a sophisticated dresser — her appearance represented the elegance of the Trang An people, the old name used for the people of Hanoi. It was her who created the recipe that made her eatery famous.
“Major international newspapers, including CBS and CNN rushed to Hanoi for [her pho]” continues Thieu. “I even saw the photos of Pho Ga Ba Lam on their panels, shirts and cameras. It not only made the eatery proud, but during this period it made Hanoians proud, too.”
Then grandma Lam passed away. Her daughters inherited the family business. People kept looking for the soul and the spirit of the dish that their mother created, but “they ended up in regret” says the writer.
That is the opinion of many from my grandparents’ generation. But for youngsters of my age and many other Hanoians, Pho Ga Ba Lam still keeps the traditional taste of chicken noodles.
The Remains of the Day
Walking down Nam Ngu, the small eatery at No. 7 is opposite a classy Western restaurant. Yet it remains traditional. The eatery welcomes diners inside by its large-sized pots of broth and old-style charcoal briquette stove, a table displaying the chicken meat and noodles, and a middle-aged lady sitting next to the table.
The shop is filled with Hanoi old-style ambience. The green window near the table is spotted with dust, the yellow-painted walls match up with French-style bricks on the floor. On the walls hang old certificates given by the Hanoi authorities of yesteryear, and next to them is a photo frame with two fading newspaper clippings. This picture is the eatery’s pride and joy.
“It is 40 years since the day my mum first opened the eatery,” says grandma Lam’s oldest daughter. “It is named after her and after she passed away, we four siblings began to run this shop as an asset from our mum.”
She continues: “My mum was very strict about how you cook pho ga. We cannot make it the same as her. But I try to keep the core ingredient standards. For instance, the major element is we have to choose good Vietnamese chickens, which are raised in countryside. It is a failure if the chicken meat is fatty and loose like Chinese chicken. The chicken meat must be soft. It is rich in taste, and sweet when you chew. Vietnamese countryside’s chickens have a very gentle fragrance when boiling! We buy chicken from Phu Tho Province.
“A delicious bowl of pho ga must have a sweet, but light broth, with shining chicken fat, chopped green spring onions, and must be topped with fresh onion with green leaves together and the bulb soaked in boiling water.”
Coming to the eatery around mid-afternoon, you may see lots of freshly boiled chicken displayed on the table. The chickens are prepared the day before so they can be served the next day. Some people even order chicken organs for their noodle soup. Others deliberately head to the eatery late afternoon to eat the chicken feet as a snack.
“Nothing is wasted here,” she laughs.
Pho Ga Ba Lam is at 7 Nam Ngu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. The eatery opens from early morning until 7.30pm and a bowl of pho ga costs VND35,000. Don't be mistaken by the next-door beef noodle shop with big signage at No. 9