Pho bac hai duong is a Vietnamese restaurant in Marrickville serving northern style beef noodle soup, which is obvious from the name - if you speak Vietnamese. "Pho" is Vietnamese beef noodle soup, "bac" means northern, and "Hai Duong" is a province in northern Vietnam. [I realize that by omitting the diacritical marks I'm mangling the Vietnamese, and I apologize for that.]
We'd ridden by this restaurant on the bus to other places, we'd heard it was one of the best pho places in the Sydney area, and we were in the mood for pho - so off we went. There are various theories about the origin of the name, and the origins of the dish. One popular version is that the name and soup come from the French "pot au feu." Others think the soup was of Chinese origin. In any case, there's general agreement that the dish started in the north in the early 1900s, and moved southward in the 1950s. There are definite regional variations, in the flavor of the broth, the style of noodles, and the amount and type of vegetables added.
The decor of Hai Duong is reasonable, glass tops over linen table cloths, but don't come here for the decor. The inside is plain and simple, and each table comes with a little tray of the standard condiments, hoi sin, chili sauce, ground chilis, fish sauce, soy sauce. There's a box of tissues to use as napkins. When you're seated you get a pot of tea that is kept filled the entire time you're there (I drank a pot and some all by myself.)
The menu is minimalist, black and white with page protectors, but a good selection of classic dishes, including the three we'd come especially to try - the eponymous pho, fried egg pancake (banh xeo), and "broken" rice with pork (com tam bi suon cha). We looked over the menu to see if there were treasures we might have missed, and to try to decide which of the multitude of pho we should get. Eventually I settled on the old reliable pho dac biet, or "special" pho, which usually includes tripe, tendon, lean beef (often round), and brisket but can include anything the restaurant feels like.
They quickly brought the condiments for the pho, bean sprouts, fresh basil, a lemon wedge, and fresh chilis. The chilis are the ubiquitious hot red chilis you find here in Sydney, and I used them to spice up all the dishes.
The first dish to arrive was the banh xeo ("sizzling cake"), which they described as Vietnamese Crepe-Style Pancake but is actually made from rice flour and tumeric.
It was filled with bean sprouts and plump shrimp and served with a side of nuoc cham (tart diluted fish sauce), fresh mint, and lettuce. The pancake itself can greasy (part of the charm in my opinion) but the mint, lettuce, bean sprouts and sauce cut the greasiness and the whole combination is delightful. The version at hai duong was nicely balanced and the shrimps were big and flavorful. We were off to a good start.
Next came the com tam ("broken rice.") The version we ordered included shredded pork, pork skin, egg, and sparerib. Each ingredient should be distinct, and there should be a hint of smokiness, especially in the sparerib. Unfortunately I thought they had overcooked everything especially the egg, and used way too much oil. Debbie liked it though. Also served with a slightly spicy nuoc cham.
Almost simultaneously came the pho dac biet. The heart of a good pho is the broth. It should be very fragrant but well balanced, no single spice or strong flavor should dominate and not too greasy.
It should be redolent of beef and fragrant spices. This broth was tasty and fragrant with star anise, though perhaps a bit sweet - though that's a matter of taste. It was topped with rare beef and brisket, though I searched in vain for tripe and tendon. I hope they didn't leave it out fearing that the white guy wouldn't like it! The noodles were the thicker northern style noodles more like fettucini width, rather than the thin southern style noodles. It was all garnished with cilantro and green onions. I doctored it with the fresh basil, lemon, bean sprouts, fresh chilis, hoisin sauce, and some chili sauce. It was great! It'd been a long time since I'd had a bowl of pho this satisfying. Any dissatisfaction with the com tam dissolved in the warm glow of the pho.