Pho Hoang Minh
172 Wyse Road
Mon-Wed 11am-9pm; Thu-Sat 11am-10pm
Fifteen is a perfect number. It’s one plus two plus three plus four plus five. It’s a magic constant, a triangular number, a hexagonal number and a pentatope number. In numerology it is apparently associated with harmony. It’s a point in tennis. And it’s also one of the best meals in Halifax.
kd lang, I choose to believe, won the 1993 Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy for a song that I, again, choose to believe was written about the 15 at Pho Hoang Minh. It is a dish I am happiest when I have, and that I want when I don’t have. I give no-bullshit actual consideration to either going to the restaurant to eat it or ordering it as delivery almost every single day. It is, very much, a constant craving.
If you aren’t familiar with Pho Hoang Minh, the restaurant has been tidily tucked away into a strip mall on Wyse Road for well over a decade. The parking lot has dozens of pigeons that shuffle around it as if in slippers in their living room, squatting feathery lumps that seem totally oblivious to cars. “This spot’s taken, man,” they coo in unison, wings shrugging, as cars pull in around them. Every now and then you’ll catch an old guy who has clearly spent a tuppence or two tossing breads crumbs to them in a huddle by the base of a streetlight. Or maybe he’s tossing quaaludes. Those birds are seriously chill. Or maybe they just know a good thing when they see it. Maybe they’re eating the 15.
Beyond the neon curls of the steam rising form the neon green bowl in the Pho sign in the window, Pho Hoang Minh is just a tiny little joint, mostly made up of around a dozen tables that sort of knock into one another and a series of stark yet appetizing photos of some of their food on the walls in small dingy frames and huge poster-sized prints. If you sit in the right seat you have a view of a butcher block in the kitchen, the well-used cleavers gleaming dully on the wall or perhaps being used by the chef. In any of the wrong seats—as if there is a wrong seat at Pho Hoang Minh—you can just stare at your delicious food.
They have a menu of Chinese fare that is heavy on deep-fried junk-foody Chinese Canadian flavours, but it’s the Vietnamese dishes you shouldn’t miss. You’re lucky if you’re slurping from a bowl of flavourful pho served with a wedge of lime, crisp bean sprouts and a fragrant twig of Thai basil ,or munching on fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with plump shrimp. But it’s the bun bowl, specifically the 15—Vermicelli Noodles with Spring Roll and Grilled Pork Shish Kabob Meat—that is the physical manifestation of the chef’s kiss.
In general, bun bowls—bun meaning noodle—are hard to get wrong. They taste good and even leave you feeling good. There is often a lot of nuance of flavour, subtle complexities that add up to something simple, bright and fresh. And Pho Hoang Minh nails it.
The bowl is stacked with flavours, starting with the mild, watery freshness of shredded lettuce and the nutty crunch of bean sprouts tucked in with the nest of room temperature vermicelli noodles. On top of that you get the mix of sweet-and-tart pickled carrot and daikon, crisp-edged umami-packed barbecue pork, a plump crisp spring roll, a crumble of peanuts and a vibrant scallion garnish. It is served with nuac chom, a prepared fish sauce that mellows out its saltiness with some sugar and acid, resulting in a brilliantly balanced dipping or drenching sauce. (I always choose drench.) The result is a dish that is sweet, sour, crisp, fresh, salty, savoury, nutty, crunchy, chewy, aromatic and colourful. It’s more than that. It’s 15.