One girl’s pho-venture through Chinatown: Ariel searches for the neighbourhood’s best Vietnamese food

Ariel Hartman (Twitter/blog) is originally from Abbotsford, British Columbia, but came to Ottawa to study journalism at Carleton University, where she is now entering her fourth year. She loves antiques, and Agatha Christie books, and could tell you anything you need to know about the JFK era. 

Ariel Hartman

Hi, my name is Ariel and I am a pho addict.

For those of you unfamiliar with pho, it is basically a brothy Vietnamese soup – usually beef, but there are normally chicken and seafood options available – with either rice or egg noodles. They bring a plate of bean sprouts, lemon grass and fresh basil for the table that you tear up and add to your pho as you see fit as well as Sriacha sauce and some sort of Teriyaki sauce that can be added to taste. Think Build-a-Bear but with an Asian soup.

My roommate and I just moved from Old Ottawa South, where the best food you can get at 3 a.m. is the Chipwagon on the corner of Bank and Sunnyside (which, I actually highly recommend. Seriously, best poutine you can get on wheels) to Chinatown, where you can get a whole Vietnamese feast until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

Here is my journey through the delicious spring-roll-ridden maze of pho places along Somerset:

The four restaurants on Ariel's pho-venture

It is actually impossible to miss all the pho places in Chinatown, not only because they are everywhere, but because to a regular white girl who only speaks English and French, they all seemingly have the same name. Within a two-block radius there is New Pho Bo Ga La, Pho Bo Ga King, Pho Bo Ga and Pho Bo Ga LA. I decided that I would task myself with trying them all and finding the best one.

(Ariel’s note to the reader: Pho is actually pronounced “Fe” – think “the” with a lisp – but I always feel really pretentious when I say it like that, so I always say “Fo.” Also it makes saying Pho Bo Ga La far more fun)

The toppings for pho

First on the docket was New Pho Bo Ga La (763 Somerset St. W.). While my dinner partner opted for spicy seafood pho, I went for a Bùn. Bùns are basically vermicelli noodle salads. You choose from a list of toppings to go on top of the vermicelli noodles including BBQ chicken, BBQ pork, BBQ beef, spring rolls, shredded pork, shrimp skewered on a sugar cane, etc. There are usually cucumbers, carrots, lettuce and bean sprouts in the bowl and then your chosen toppings. Prices vary depending on how many toppings you like. I got two so it was only $9 for a huge bowl of delicious-ness. Unlike pho, a Bùn isn’t brothy, and you get a light dressing to pour over your giant bowl of food. It’s a really light and fresh flavour that isn’t heavy and is pretty simple – compared to pho, where there is a lot more participation expected from the orderer. Overall, the food at New Pho Bo Ga La was really good. I felt like I really got my money’s worth out of that Bùn and the spring rolls were unreal! Seriously. Dynamite spring rolls. Our food came quickly and the service was very pleasant.

Overall I give New Pho Bo Ga La 5 spring rolls out of a possible 6.

A vietnamese bùn (photo via flickr)

Next was Pho Bo Ga King (778 Somerset St. W. – actually across the street from New PBGL). Trying to make this as scientific as possible, I ordered essentially the same thing as I did at New PBGL, a Bùn. Pho Bo Ga King had a special on, where your whole meal is 10% off, so it ended up being cheaper than New PBGL, but wasn’t quite as tasty. There wasn’t enough of the light dressing-stuff and the spring rolls were a bit too salty. I did like that the cucumber and carrot to vermicelli noodle ratio was a little more in favour of the veggies though. And, like I said, the price was much better, ending up being about $8 for a Bùn. As for the service, it was nothing compared to New PBGL. We waited for a long time to have our order taken and then had to ask more than once for the waitress to bring us water.

Overall I give Pho Bo Ga King 3.5 spring rolls out of a possible 6.

A bowl of pho (picture via flickr)

The penultimate pho stop was Pho Bo Ga (12A Lebreton St., just on the corner of Somerset). Pho Bo Ga boasts about being voted Ottawa’s best Vietnamese restaurant a few years ago – there’s a nice plaque on the wall and everything.  I am slightly ashamed to say that I strayed from the proper scientific method I was taught in grade school. Instead of getting a vermicelli-noodle-bowl-thing (aka another Bùn) I got a VERY delicious beef pho. The pho here was really nice and light. I often find that pho can be pretty salty, but Pho Bo Ga was light and flavourful without bludgeoning your taste buds with salt. While the pho here was by far the best I had tried yet, the spring rolls were only slightly better than mediocre. They were nice and crunchy, but bordered on being a bit dry. Pho Bo Ga was also really reasonably priced. It was $6.50 for a small pho and about $3 for spring rolls which, trust me, is definitely enough food for one hungry person!

Overall Pho Bo Ga gets 5 spring rolls out a possible 6.

The dictionary-sized menu at Pho Bo Ga LA

The last stop on my pho-venture took me to Pho Bo Ga LA (784 Somerset St.). The menu at Pho Bo Ga LA was impressive, possibly one of the biggest I have seen. Not only were there many different kinds of pho, but also Bùns and different types of pad thai. Having already thrown any semblance of scientific method out the window at the last place, I decided to order whatever struck my fancy which, this time around, happened to be a small beef and chicken pho and spring rolls, both of which were wonderful.  The pho was saltier than Pho Bo Ga, but was still very tasty.  Once again, the spring rolls were wonderful and not at all soggy. One of my friends who I was having dinner with also ordered a lychee milkshake that was spectacularly refreshing and was perfect when I realized I added a little bit too much hot sauce to my pho…

Overall Pho Bo Ga LA gets 4.5 spring rolls out of a possible 6.

Wow, sounds delicious, Ariel! Are any of you interested in showcasing the best food your neighbourhood has to offer? Love trying out new restaurants? Tell us about it at ltottawa@gmail.com.