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February 7, 2010

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Just not pho real

DESPITE being a regional culinary neighbor, the authenticity of Vietnamese food in Shanghai leaves one staring despondently into their bowl of pho. Such was the doleful expression of my dining companion as he peered into the murky depths of the offering at Pho 26 - a self-proclaimed specialist of the classic Vietnamese soup and noodle dish.

The Vietnamese eatery on Wujiang Road is shoe-horned into a tiny space at the back of Marks and Spencer. They offer 30 types of pho but when the "special Pho 26" came to the table it prompted my companion to recount the extent that some will go to find authentic such cuisine in Shanghai.

After trying the anaemic broth of our special pho, he told how in the expat enclaves of Hongqiao there is a tight network offering fabulous Vietnamese delicacies.

The Vietnamese wife of one of his friends' was left so unimpressed by the city's Vietnamese cuisine she was driven to send for a care package from home and started her own delivery service. It's a recipe for a booming business but at the moment one has to be in that close circle to get a whiff of fragrant pho.

Back at our Wujiang Road eatery, fragrance, personality and punch were all missing from the lacklustre pho we were dished up. One couldn't fault the value with a big bowl of soup and noodles for 35 yuan (US$5.13). But when it comes to pho, it's all in the stock.

Thankfully they hadn't been as slack as some in the city and had gone to the effort of making the stock from scratch. But sometimes a good thing can't go too far and this watery stock had been spread too thin, leaving a base for the dish that barely approached adequate and never reached memorable.

A few frozen fish balls thrown in at the last moment did nothing to add to the overall effect. Going for another Vietnamese staple, fresh spring rolls, also provided mixed results.

The six half rolls were fresh and light with mango, prawn, vermicilli noodles, slightly over-ripened green papaya and lettuce leaves. The rolls hadn't been wrapped tightly enough and deconstructed on being dipped into one of the three sauces on offer. The first was a characterless standard chilli, oil, garlic and vinegar dip that had as much zing as a Kenny G concert.

A bland avocado dip and a bizarre strawberry puree rounded out the dipping options. It was a pure case of localizing a Vietnamese classic so it becomes neither a well-executed favorite nor an interesting interpretation.

Things picked up with the braised beef with lemongrass and rice vermicilli that had a more robust chilli sauce. It is a pour and mix dish, with ample pieces of good-quality beef, grated carrot and papaya, toasted garlic chips, mung beans and peanuts.

It was a hearty offering, if a little overpowered by too much onion, making it a risky lunchtime option.

If the food is middling then the service is timely and, if a little unpolished, effusive. At prices ranging from 30 yuan to 50 yuan for a main and starting from 20 yuan for appetizers, it's also reasonable, notwithstanding the disappointments.

While never aspiring to set a new benchmark in the city for Vietnamese food, Pho 26 does provide an adequate alternative in the slim pickings for this cuisine in Shanghai.


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