Thai Son Restaurant: Spring rolls fell flat but Pho was decent
230-2800 East 1st Ave.
Still seeking refuge from the cool weather in Vancouver, we decided to go out for pho. There are 3 top pho restaurants in the Lower Mainland which are hard to top: Bao Chau on East Hastings near Playland, Pho Tam in Whalley, Surrey and the award-winning Cambodian restaurant, Phnom Penh on East Georgia on the edge of Chinatown. However, we decided to try something new this time, Thai Son in the 1st Avenue Marketplace Plaza in East Vancouver.
Rule number 1 at a pho restaurant, if it’s your first visit, always order the house special beef combo pho: Pho Dac Biet. This is rice noodles in broth with beef balls, tripe and slices of beef brisket. You can’t go wrong. Pho Dac Biet is every pho house’s staple dish like a cheeseburger at a burger joint. So you can tell a lot about a place by how their pho dac biet is prepared. It’s usually listed as menu item number 1 at most pho houses. Actually, also at most pho houses, the menus are so humongous, that when the waiter comes, you just quote the menu item number. Don’t even try to pronounce the actual name of the dish. Waiters at these places are pretty impatient, and customer service is not a priority. But that’s part of the charm of dining at ‘hole-in-the-wall’ establishments right?
All the noodle dishes usually come in small and large. You can’t really tell in the picture below, but the large on the left really is significantly bigger, there are more ingredients and broth, and the bowl is deeper.
There are 3 components that make a good pho: al dente noodles, flavourful broth and freshness of ingredients. The noodles at Thai Son were definitely al dente, with a good chewiness and flavour soaked up from the salty broth. There was also a hefty amount of ingredients, a nice layer of brisket and plenty of beef ball chunks on top of the noodles. I can’t say that the brisket was entirely fresh and tender though. There were some well cooked slices but generally, the meat was a little bit tough and chewy. The beef balls were on the leaner side. The tripe was nice and springy, it was sliced a little too thin though. I like tripe to be sliced thick enough so that I can hear the faint crunch of it as I take a bite. The broth was good but nothing special.
I don’t use pho toppings but it is traditional to sprinkle some bean sprouts on top of the noodles and squeeze some fresh lime into the broth. The only problem is, at Thai Son, they serve lemon wedges instead of lime. I suppose lemons are cheaper this time of year than limes? But any true foodie knows that limes provide a much tangier, more concentrated sour citrus hit of flavour. Lemons are sweet and might not coax out the intricate layers of broth flavours in the pho.
The spring rolls here were large and flat. I am used to the big and round, deep fried spring rolls at Bao Chau. However, I have been told that the rounder style of spring rolls are Cambodian style and these flatter spring rolls may be more authentic Vietnamese style. One thing is for sure though, Thai Son totally skimps on ingredients when it comes to spring roll filling! The filling was a little bit mushy, and really only seemed to be comprised of ground pork and some mild seasoning. The spring rolls at Phnom Penh are chock full of pork, some vermicelli and even bits of crab meat, in other words, they are chock full of flavour. I can’t say the same about the Thai Son spring rolls. The filling was a little bland. The spring roll shells were very crispy though.
The rice dishes that we ordered were grilled pork chop with shredded pork with an egg on steamed broken rice (Con Tam Bi Suon Ga Trung) and grilled lemon grass chicken on steamed broken rice (Com Tam Bi Ga Uop Xa).
The portions on both rice dishes was substantial. If you’re wondering what broken rice is, it’s exactly what it sounds like, ground up pieces of rice kernels, steamed. It reminds me of rice texture in congee though. The shredded pork was the most interesting. It’s not exactly shredded pork meat, it’s shredded pork skin, and has the texture of fried jelly. I liked it, it was salty and crunchy. The pork chop was sliced a little bit too thin for me. It cooled down very quickly so when I got around to eating it, it was cold and a bit tough. The lemon grass chicken was tender though. The meat was marinated perfectly, and cooked just right.
Now, the other staple in pho houses: traditional Vietnamese style, French pressed coffee. We always order it iced. It comes to the table with the press on top of the cup, already filled with a couple of teaspoons of condensed milk. A big jug of ice is served with the coffee. Here’s what you do: when most of the liquid has been extracted and dripped out of the coffee grounds in the press, gently press down on the top of the press to squeeze out the last of the coffee, then fill the glass with ice and mix until the coffee and condensed milk are blended.
The coffee at Thai Son was great. I can’t say that it was aromatic, but it was better than average. The coffee was both strong and smooth and the condensed milk added a creaminess and sweetness that finished off the meal nicely.