The best pho in Melbourne

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The best pho in Melbourne

best pho Melbourne

There are a few disappointments in life that even a fully-formed, highly-functioning adult male finds impossible to countenance.

The sight of your first love in the warm embrace of another man. The new Morbid Angel album sounding like Limp Bizkit in their heyday. The season one box set of Bored To Death . And then there is what happened to me last week, when I starved myself for sixteen hours in anticipation of feasting on a steaming bowl of Vietnam’s finest culinary export and rode my bike to Victoria Street on a brisk winter’s evening, only to find a gaggle of thirty people already waiting out the front of my favourite Pho restaurant.“When did Vietnamese food become so popular?” I screamed at the assembled diners, through salty tears of hunger and bitter rage. “I lived in Richmond three years ago and I never remember such a high proportion of people on the street who didn’t have syringes sticking out of their arms.

As they say, you know a trend is dead once you’ve read about it in the paper, so in the naive hope of getting more legroom at my favourite outlet, I shall take you on a journey back to the historical origins of this wondrous dish.


Pho (pronounced fo-uh), or rice noodle soup, first appeared around the turn of the 20th Century in northern Vietnam as a quick breakfast staple for factory workers in Hanoi. Like much of Vietnam’s cuisine, the dish itself is a synthesis of Chinese and French colonial influence. Stock is boiled, reduced and placed into a serving bowl. At the last minute, flat noodles are added to the broth, followed by a small mix of sliced green vegetables and finally, thin trimmings of chicken or beef. Basil, lemon and bean shoots are usually served as a garnish, and chilli is added to taste.

By the 1920s, Pho was wildly popular all over the country, with the meal being served in the two-tiered form you will find in Vietnam today: high-end restaurants in the fancy parts of town, and outdoor, mobile sidewalk setups with miniature plastic furniture to cater for the breakfast rush of the less well-to-do. There’s a lot of regional variation in the dish and as in Australia, restaurants are primarily family affairs, with a number of stores each running under the auspices of the same wrinkled, irritable matriarch and working from the same recipe. Any Pho chef worth his weight in MSG will tell you that the key to an exceptional bowl of Pho is the length of time the stock is boiled: most places will leave a batch on the boil overnight and twelve to sixteen hours tends to be the rule. The other thing to look out for is the freshness of the garnish, but beyond that it’s hard to go wrong.


In 1972, Australia realised that its military involvement in Vietnam was not yielding its aims of conquering all evil everywhere in the world, and we made a graceful withdrawal. Once Saigon fell to the Communist north in 1975, tens of thousands of refugees from the losing side made their way to Australia by boat. Vietnamese refugees established themselves largely around the newer Housing Commission estates in Richmond and Footscray, as well as the then fringe suburbs of St Albans, Springvale and Box Hill. It’s these five places that you’ll find the best Vietnamese cuisine.


There are a few differences between Pho in Australia and what you would expect to find in the mother country. With a nod to first-world affluence, the meat is of a higher quality and the serving size is three times larger than your typical Hanoi street stall. There is a wider selection on the menu as well as a bigger range of condiments – bear in mind, drowning your Pho in too many different kinds of sauce is considered gauche and will probably not endear you to the owner.

With that in mind, here are a few places to get you started on your Pho voyage:

92 Hopkins Street, Footscray

270 Victoria Street, Richmond

69 Main Road, St Albans
The gold standard of Pho in Melbourne; anyone who tells you otherwise is hoping to mislead you in the hope of reducing store patronage for their own selfish ends. They might as well give up: I give it three months before people are queuing up tents outside the Richmond store with tents in the faint hope of getting a look-in the next afternoon. The Footscray store is arguably a better alternative: apart from being less busy, TVs on the wall looped on Top 40 Viet pop songs in deference to its predominantly Viet (and thus more exacting) clientele, rather than the constantly blaring Channel Seven at its Richmond cousin. Somewhere in there is a metaphor that does not run the risk of being misconstrued as racist, but I hesitate to venture it just in case. Apparently there’s another Chu The out in St Albans, but I wasn’t able to conquer my crippling fear of the western suburbs before deadline.


136 Hopkins Street, Footscray

150 Victoria Street, Richmond
Named for the dynasty of ancient Emperors in Vietnam, who dominated the political affairs of the Mekong Delta with an iron fist for nearly 3000 years under the twin mottos: “never give a first-time customer a fresh garnish,” and “four day old basil that has been pressed up against the cooling stack in the back of the fridge will do.” It’s not often that you can tell what esteem you are held in by the proprietors of a restaurant by whether or not your basil is the right colour, but it’s strangely flattering when it is. The Footscray branch is larger but still fills up out the door at odd times, while its sister store in Richmond is slightly gaudier but generally less bustling.

208 Victoria Street, Richmond

447 High Street, Preston

234 Russell Street
One of the less popular Pho joints in town – unfortunately, the friendly folk at its Richmond and Preston outlets are dragged down by their subpar namesake on Russell Street. I can’t speak highly enough of the Beef Special at the Richmond Store, mainly for the texture of the beef fat portions, which are larger and thus more gelatinous than you would find in other restaurants. The stock is reduced for longer and is a lot stronger than the other places I’ve suggested, so this may not be the best introduction to the dish if you have a subtle palette.

241 Swanston Street
Oh dear. This one certainly isn’t the pick of the litter, but deserves an honourable mention for being in an easy location and for having a bit more variety on the menu. A sign on the front notes that President Clinton once ate two bowls of Pho in one sitting while on a diplomatic mission in Vietnam, and dares prospective diners to attempt the same. The fare on offer at Mekong might give some clues as to why Bill Clinton needed emergency quadruple bypass heart surgery later in life. Highly recommended if you like a cheap high and consider an MSG overdose a little less déclassé than a paper bag and a can of aerosol paint.

Pho is the winter soup that doubles as a hangover cure. See you on Victoria Street, working up a sweat over a big bowl.