Street food: Phở gà Bà Lâm – Phố Nam Ngư

I find my way back to the basic of Hanoi’s street food, Phở Gà! Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Julia Vola. The article was published on Word Vietnam Issue January 2015. 

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Phở Gà – Back to basic

I was surprised myself when being told from our Chief Editor that we have not yet covered a full story on Phở Gà – Hanoi chicken noodle. To me, maybe Phở Gà is the most basic and an absolute staple of local street food, that makes us, Street Snacker writers, all think that it must have been covered long ago. It somehow explains why it remains uncovered story. Therefore, I decided to find my way back to Hanoi’s basic and simple but flavorful traditional Phở.

To Hanoians, Phở Gà could be said as something of their “daily routine”. Phở Gà is served for breakfast, but also for a quick lunch when you have to rush back to work. Or whenever you skip your lunch, then find yourself craving for food during mid-afternoon, it would enlighten you up when a heating bowl of Phở Gà with chicken meat and fresh onion, is in front of you! But Phở Gà is also the choice when riding your bike in the cold of midnight, you drop by a street-side noodle stall, treating your stomach with a favor. It is nothing but the warmth would wrap you until the next morning! As Hanoians can eat Phở Gà “all day”, people consider it a basic part of their life, Phở Gà seems to be taken for granted. However, when it comes to cooking, it is not that simple to excel this basic and simple, but delicious dish.

Phở Gà can be found everywhere on the street, from street stalls to expensive restaurants! Famous local Phở Gà eateries that are favored by many Hanoians are Phở gà Nam Ngu street, Phở gà Mai Anh at Le Van Huu street, Phở gà Hang Dieu street, Phở Bản at Ton Duc Thang Street… After long reluctance of where the best treat for this staple dish of Hanoi, I decided to head for downtown streets to discover the story behind the 40-year Phở Gà Bà Lâm at No.7 Nam Ngu street.

The eatery is near the joint between Nam Ngu street and Phan Boi Chau street, where not only me but many Hanoians have special love for. It is the joint where the legendary Phở Bò Kiệm that is said to make many old Hanoians addicted, as well as near the famous chicken noodle eatery – Phở gà Bà Lâm and now homes one of the Ngon restaurants at an old and typically French-styled villa.

A story of a legend

People said that Phở Gà Bà Lâm used to be a “legend”. Around the 80s, the eatery was a famous destination in Hanoi. “At that time, it was a “privilege” if someone invite you for a Phở gà Bà Lâm treat” a famous Vietnamese writer, Nguyen Quang Thieu wrote.

Grandma Lam, who is the eatery owner, as well as the chef, whose appearance represented elegance of Trang An people, the old name of Hanoi people, made up the recipe that addicted both local and foreigners at that time. “Major international newspapers, including CBS and CNN rushed to Hanoi for it! I even saw the photos of Phở Gà Bà Lâm on their panels, shirts and cameras! It was not only the pride for the eatery but for Hanoians of that period. If it had not been for the delicious and special chicken noodle, I bet the advertisement would have costed the eatery their whole fortune to be featured on CBS and CNN”the famous writer wrote.

Then grandma Lam passed away. Her daughters inherited the family business. People kept looking for the soul and the spirit of the dish that their mom created, but “they ended up in regret” the writer expressed.

That is the opinion of someone of my grandparents’ generations. But for youngsters of my age and many other Hanoians, Phở gà Bà Lâm still somehow brings back the traditional taste that Hanoians cooked chicken noodle in the past.

Remains of a legend

Walking on the quiet Nam Ngu street, you will realize the small eatery at No.7, opposite to a very nice and   classy Western restaurant. The eatery welcomes diners by big-sized broth pots and old-styled charcoal briquette stove, a table displaying the chicken meat and noodles, and a middle-aged lady sitting next to the table.

The shop is filled with Hanoi old-styled ambience. The green window near the table is spotted with dust, the yellow-painted walls totally match up with French-styled bricks on the floor. On the walls hanging certifications of Hanoi authorities years ago, next to a photo frame of 2 pieces of newspapers, which is darkening day by day. It is hard to say what the newspapers wrote about the eatery, but kept for years, the photos frame is the pride of grandma Lam’s daughters.

“It is 40 years since the day my mum first opened the eatery. It is named after her name. After she passed away, we, 4 siblings together run this shop as an asset from my mum” the lady, who is the first daughter of the grandma said.

“My mum was very very strict in cooking this dish. We could not cook the same like her. But I try to keep the core ingredient standards. For instance, the major element is we have to choose good Vietnamese chickens, which are raised in countryside. It is a failure if the chicken meat is fatty and loose like Chinese chicken! The chicken meat must be dente. It is rich in taste, and sweet when you chew. Vietnamese countryside’s chickens have very gentle fragrance when boiling! We buy chicken from Phu Tho province for everyday serving”.

“When selecting the chicken, if you choose the young one, the meat will be too tender and the broth would lack the necessary degree of fat. A delicious bowl of Phở Gà must have sweet, but light broth, delighted by shining chicken fat, and chopped green onion pieces, served with noodles and topped by fresh onion plants with green leaves together with the bulb soaked in boiling water”.

The eatery is really famous for its sweet and fresh onion plants, whose taste totally harmonizes with the delightful broth and the sour taste of the lemon squeezed onto the soup.

Coming to the eatery around mid-afternoon, you may see lots of freshly boiled chicken displayed on the table. The chickens are prepared for early serving the next day.

Some people even order organs inside the chicken for their noodle soup. Some others even head for the eatery around late afternoon to eat the chicken feet as a snack. “Nothing is wasted here” she joked.

The lady pointed at the photo frame and proudly said to me “If I am not wrong, above is the piece cut from a Russian newspaper, the other is the from a French one!”. But I can easily notice the word “Feature” from the darkening article, smiling and telling myself “who knows, maybe one of the two is the CNN article!”

This 40 year-old eatery is also one of the few cases that I can only collect the ideas for my writing after times and times coming to the eatery. But I will keep coming back, not because of information collecting, but enjoying the simple but flavorful Phở Gà and finding my back to another Hanoi of the past!

Phở gà Bà Lâm is located at 7 Nam Ngu street. The eatery opens from early morning till 7.30 pm. it is VND35,000/bowl. Note: Don’t be mistaken with the next-door Beef noodle shop with big panel at No.9.

 

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