Friday, February 26, 2010


Pho at Song Huong Vietnamese Beef Noodle Restaurant

Vancouver is home to an abundance of Vietnamese restaurants, and for this, we are truly lucky. As maybe apparent, I am a true fan of Vietnamese cuisine, but I also love the ambiance and aesthetic that many of the restaurants have: the simple furnishings and decor, the plastic fruit hanging from a ceiling trellis, and often times a television in the corner playing a regional variety show. The feeling is like that of a getaway, as well as a familiar home away from home. When you walk into Song Huong Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup Restaurant, this is what you get, but the main attraction is the phenomenal pho.

Once welcomed by the bulgy-eyed goldfish swimming in their tank, you enter into the large, lounge-like main dining area. You can get comfortable in one of the white rattan seats and hang out there with the large-screen t.v. and dangling fruit, or head to the second seating area which is slightly smaller and more minimal in decor. Booths line both sides of the room, and this seems to be where the majority of customers congregate. Perhaps this is where the no-nonsense diners want to be, not here to lounge, but to eat. I guess ambiance and aesthetics have a place, but when it comes right down to it, it really is all about the food.

And how do you know a good pho? It is a matter of taste, but general opinion is a good indicator as well. After I was introduced to this place by a friend, I started bringing others to the restaurant, and friends and family members have declared it's goodness. My Vietnamese students also raved about it excitedly when I mentioned that it was a particular favourite. And it really is. The spices are perfect and the broth is rich and flavourful - it tastes of a carefully concocted brew. The cuts of meat, basil and bean sprout garnishes are also very fresh, and the beef balls have the perfect bounce. Their menu has many other traditional dishes, but it also includes specialties that other Vietnamese restaurants don't serve, like homemade beef sausages that are wonderfully spiced and perfectly grilled, and build-it-yourself specialty salad rolls. There is also a plentiful list of icy drinks to accompany your dish, including sour plum soda and tangy-sweet limonade.

It can get busy at dinnertime, but I've never had to wait. At these times, service can be harried but it is always cordial. And the price cannot be beat. A hearty bowl of pho and a drink will cost you around $10 before tax and tip. They are also fully licensed in case you do plan to lounge around.

Song Huong Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup Restaurant is located at 1613 Nanaimo Street (between Graveley Street and 1st Avenue). Their number is (604) 568-1196.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Congee Comfort

Congee has been a staple of my diet since I was a wee tot. Because it can be made as complex or as simple as you like, it is the perfect food for children, the aged, and everyone in between. It is the comfort food of the Asian family. The uniqueness of congee is in the perfect blooms of rice which flower only after an extended cooking period. From this, comes that melt in your mouth consistency and creaminess that warms the tummy and the spirit.

Growing up, congee was always made with white rice, and when eating congee at a Hong Kong diner, this is the way it is made. At home I have always made it this way, but these days, with trying to incorporate more whole grains into my diet, I am making congee with brown rice. (It's also because I don't often have white rice on hand at home, and when the congee craving comes, whatever is in the fridge and cupboard is what is used.) I am getting comfortable with this new congee paradigm. It is just like the usual congee, only slightly grittier and darker in colour. And if you like your congee plain to add garnishes to later, the porridge really serves as a conduit for the added flavours, and the grittiness is hardly noticed. A way to complement the texture is to add pearl barley. It's not considered a whole grain but is super nutritious, and has triple the amount of dietary fiber compared to long-grain white rice. Below is my recipe for brown rice and pearl barley congee. Really, you could put most anything in with the rice, cook it with care, and get a meal that is delightfully comforting.

Brown Rice and Barley Congee (makes 4 hearty servings)
  • 1/3 cup pearl barley
  • 1/3 cup brown rice (short or long grain)
  • *10 cups water
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • 2 Tbsp finely sliced ginger
  • 1 cup diced carrot
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • *1/4 cup finely sliced shiitake mushroom or mushroom stem
  • 1/2 lb. of (extra) lean ground chicken, turkey (milder flavour) or pork (richer flavour)
  • soy sauce, salt, and white pepper to taste
  • splash of cider, red or balsamic vinegar (optional)
*You can use vegetable or meat stock in partial quantity with the water. I used 8 cups water and 2 cups mushroom stock. If you use dried shiitake mushrooms, you need to soak the caps overnight to get them nice and soft. Mushroom stems need longer. Once the mushrooms are fully bloated they are ready to use. The soaking water makes great stock.

Bring all ingredients to a rolling boil, then turn the heat to low. Simmer on low for approximately an hour and a half. If you like your carrots and onions a little crisp, add them during the last 20 minutes of cooking. Once done, add any of the following garnishes: sliced green onion, cilantro, fried shallots, salted duck egg, or century egg (my absolute favourite). Enjoy!