This family-run Vietnamese restaurant serves up savoury, spicy soup
Pho Metro is located at 2057 Lawrence Ave. E. in Scarborough
For a decade I've been very regularly visiting Pho Metro, a family-run operation in the shadows of Shawarma Row in Scarborough.
Since opening it has spawned other franchise locations but the original one on Lawrence Avenue East is special to me.
The father, Son Van Le, and mother, Manh Thi Phan, both cook in the kitchen while their son, Bien Le, and daughter, Thu Le, direct in the dining room. And after every trip or vacation, all I want is to sit in a corner at Pho Metro and bury my face in a bowl of noodle soup.
It has become a kind of nostalgia for me and my wife over the years, a few moments where we can both tune out, phones down.
The order is almost always the same and once it's placed I anxiously fix my gaze on the small window pass at the back of the restaurant that peaks into the kitchen, hoping that the next steaming bowl that lands on the pass is mine.
So I jumped at the idea when Bien invited me into the kitchen to see how the restaurant's signature Bún bò Huế is made. The dish is the bigger and bolder cousin to the well-celebrated pho noodle soup from Vietnam.
It uses the base pho stock, the regional dish is highlighted by adding spiced meat which punches up the flavours. While pho is about delicate beef and herbal notes, bún bò Huế is loud and more pronounced.
Bún bò Huế originated in Hue, although it has many variations throughout Vietnam, but I had never quite had a version like this. There's something special about the central Vietnamese soup at Pho Metro.
"Yes it is the spice. It is all about our chili oil," Bien said as his mother cooked the dish.
She takes thinly sliced beef shank and cooks them in a wok with a house-made chili oil, vigorously tossing the meat for a few minutes.
"We make the chili oil in house, so it has a specific taste to it. It's our own version of Bún bò Huế," Bien said.
Once the meat is sufficiently coated, it goes into a bowl along with a mound of noodles and is filled with a ladling of beef stock that has been cooked overnight. The beef stock is sublime; it's what you'll enjoy if you get the basic pho tai, but with the marinated beef shank the spice levels are cranked up a few notches.
Like other Vietnamese restaurants, Pho Metro's menu is like a small booklet with pages of regional Vietnamese dishes.
"But the difference here is that every dish has a story from either my mom or dad. It is from their families." Bien explained.
I remember trying banh xeo, a savoury fried pancake, for the first time during a trip in Vietnam and I did not immediately like it.
A good banh xeo, in my opinion, should have a cratered surface of crisp and soft parts with a delicate amount of seasoning and no oil.
At Pho Metro, it is another specialty dish that Phan is known for.
"She learned to make this at a very young age, cooking it for her family. It had to be perfect or people would complain," Bien said.
According to Phan, perfect is getting the right temperature on her cast iron skillet before pouring the rice flour batter and adding the ingredients: shrimp, green onions, sliced pork and bean sprouts. The pancake then cooks for much longer than I expected, about 15 minutes, to form a crisp outer shell.
Banh Xeo is meant to be eaten with your hands, and I find that it is the perfect complement to a hot bowl of Bún bò Huế.
Recently, the family has started to offer Vietnamese desserts at the restaurant, which is a rarity in this city. There's an assortment of flan, pandan, rice and bean desserts on the menu. The pandan-rich steamed layer cake, banh da lon is my latest obsession.