When I'm slurping away on delicious pho, like the kind you can find at Pho Hoang, I can't help but wonder why Canada's national dish isn't more like Vietnam's.
Sure, poutine can bring you warmth and offer a base for beer, while a good butter tart is a thing of real beauty, but neither of these provide you with that all-encompassing warmth that layers of aromatic beef stock do.
And for my money, no one in this city makes a better pho (pronounced "fuh") than Tom Hoang, the cook and owner of Pho Hoang.
"Most of my Vietnamese customer say, 'Wow, your food is so good here, but why isn't it as busy as those [other] Vietnamese restaurants?'" said Tom Hoang.
"But I think it is because they've been open for 20 years, and I just opened."
Hoang's journey to Winnipeg has been a lengthy one; he left Ho Chi Minh City at the age of 14 along with his uncle, then made his way through Cambodia to live in a refugee camp in Thailand for three years. At the age of 17, he was sponsored by the Canadian government and landed in Vancouver in 1990.
"When I came to Canada I wanted to work restaurant jobs, because it is warm inside the kitchen," Hoang jokes.
For the past 20 years he has worked in kitchens in Vancouver, New Brunswick, Edmonton and Calgary, cooking everything from Chinese, to Japanese, to learning how to run a kitchen at Earls.
During these years, he always made trips back to Vietnam, eating in the best restaurants and learning how to replicate their flavours.
"I lived here for one year and tried all the Vietnamese restaurants and I said that I should open up a restaurant here," he said, "because they don't taste very good [compared to mine] … but they have a lot of customers."
Hoang opened Pho Hoang in a strip mall on Sargent Avenue in January 2011. It's been open seven days a week ever since, while Tom has yet to take a day off for nearly three years. It's this kind of dedication that makes his pho so good.
He showed me some of the ropes on how to make the stock, and while mine doesn't quite have his depth of flavour (Tom's stock cooks for 24 hours), this is still an ideal meal to make when you are cooped up on a cold winter's day.
(Makes enough broth for four to six soups)
- 1 large shallot
- 1 6cm segment of fresh ginger
- 1 whole pod black cardamom
- 1 whole intact piece of star anise (or 5 segments)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 pieces of clove
- 4 pieces of oxtail
- 3 marrow bones
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 6 whole black peppercorns
Place oxtail and marrow bones in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil for about 10 minutes.
Skim the scummy stuff that rises to the top, then dump out liquid and rinse bones and oxtail under cool water (this will keep your stock nice and clear, as it should be).
Over an open flame (Tom used an open element, but I don't have gas so I used my barbecue), char the shallot and ginger until they are black on all sides. Peel off black bits and discard. Both should now be soft and almost gummy to the touch.
Toast the cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, and cloves in a dry pan on the stovetop.
Combine all the ingredients in a pressure cooker and cover with cold water so the cooker is two-thirds full. Add the tablespoon of fish sauce, bring everything to a boil, put the lid on and let it cook away at your highest PSI for about an hour and a half.
If you don't have a pressure cooker, then follow the same directions but let the stock simmer for at least eight hours in a heavy-bottom stock pot.