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Hẻm Gems: From Ohio to D7, the Serendipitous Story of Saigon's Lamb Phở

A highlight of my last visit to Phở Lạc Việt was a special moment when I reached out and the tips of my fingers touched a warm bowl inside the heating cabinet.

The warming contraption is meant to ward off germ growth and help the soup retain its ideal heat for longer. Most casual eateries in Vietnam are rarely this hardcore, and the amenity serves as one of many testaments to its owner Nguyễn Nhật Thăng’s palpable passion for restauranteurship. For as long as I’ve written about food in Saigon, I’ve learnt that there’s always a fascinating story behind how and why local chefs decide to get their culinary creations out there for our munching pleasures, the challenging part sometimes is how to get them talking about that passion. Thăng’s affable demeanor makes this a non-issue; the friendly chef and owner of Phở Lạc Việt is always down to discuss his food with any patron who expresses an interest, not just because they’re writing an article about it.

Phở cừu (top right), phở gà (bottom left) and bánh mì phở (bottom right).

Lạc Việt is based on the ground floor of an apartment block in southern Saigon so close to Nha Be that if one so much as blinks on the drive there, the edge of the city is already in sight. Phở is among the few Vietnamese dishes that perhaps has lost much of its mystery. It’s ever-present, dependable and comforting, but not very exciting. You can trust a bowl of phở to have your back if you feel peckish after a night out or in need of some curative warming broth, not very often can it surprise you. Lately, rumors of a newly opened lamb phở joint in Saigon pinged my novelty radar, so one sweltering Saturday afternoon I found myself traversing the absurdly spacious avenues of District 7 to get a slurp of the elusive phở cừu.

In between shabby neighborhood coffee shops and ornate villas, the red-white banners and outdoor dining area of Phở Lạc Việt don’t appear too much out of the ordinary. The menu, on the other hand, features some atypical grounds that few phở eateries have ever trodden, like phở cừu and bánh mì phở, among other staples like phở gà and tái nạm.

Clear broth is a feature at Phở Lạc Việt.

A bowl of lamb phở features every usual element of its beef counterpart, albeit with lamb instead of beef slices. The broth is made of conventional beef bones, as lamb bones are too rare in Vietnam, according to Thăng. Its clarity in both flavor and texture is commendable. With every sip, notes of cloves, cinnamon and onion fill my nose, while the strong beef umami taste makes it hard to stop slurping. The morsels of cừu are quite tender, retaining that distinctive lamb aroma without overwhelming the taste.

A common complaint deterring Vietnamese palates from appreciating mutton is this odor. To avoid this problem, Thăng shared that he seeks spring lamb from Australia, which comes from sheep not older than six months. All told, Lạc Việt’s phở cừu is a carefully crafted invention that will no doubt earn showers of praise at house parties and potlucks, but it’s not so spectacular to justify frequent treks to District 7. Admittedly, I am not a huge phở fan; if I’m in a pinch, I would gladly sit down for a sizzling bowl at the shop right around the corner, but I rarely crave it.

Bits of stir-fried lamb are piled on top of the noodles.

What I’ve been craving recently, however, is Phở Lạc Việt’s bánh mì phở — a standard baguette stuffed with slices of gầu bò, herbs and condiments. As far as deconstructed phở goes, this is not even the wackiest, compared to the plethora of phở-inspired gelato, cocktails and burgers I’ve sampled. Gầu, the fatty part of the brisket, is braised with spices, sliced and then submerged in the broth to keep it juicy until it’s added to the bánh mì. A loaf comes with heaps of ngò gai (culantro) and a healthy drizzle of hoisin sauce and homemade chili sauce that bears a subtle sourness.

Preparing bánh mì phở.

At VND80,000, it will likely be the most expensive bánh mì you’ve ever eaten, but the amount of beef inside is appropriate for the price tag. If phở’s century-old reputation as Vietnam’s national dish is any indication, its flavor combination is a tried-and-true classic with all fundamental tastes — salty meat and sauce, sweet hoisin, spicy and sour tương ớt, and umami meat. The crunch of bánh mì rectifies the lack of textures that phở noodle soup usually features.

Phở Lạc Việt is a relative newcomer to the Saigon food scene, having opened only in October last year, but its name harks back to over a decade of Thăng’s phở legacy that started in Columbus, Ohio. Thăng was born in Saigon, but he came to the US in April 1975 with his parents, sister and three brothers. They first lived in the Fort Chaffey refugee camp in Arkansas. Another family living at the same site was sponsored by the Lutheran Church, but they declined the offer. Thăng’s family took it and was relocated to Columbus where he went to school and later started a career in the US Postal Service.

Happy patrons from a local medical center in Columbus, Ohio queuing for Lạc Việt's takeaway cups of phở in 2013. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Nhật Thăng.

After retiring, Thăng turned to his life-long passion for food by opening the first iteration of Lạc Việt in Columbus, which over time spawned mobile food carts and other stints at cafeterias and food fairs. The menu almost always included hot phở and bánh mì — prized creations that have marked the Lạc Việt name from then until now. Thăng acknowledged his late mother’s influence in the formation of his own phở recipe. The family has roots in Nam Dinh Province and he was born in Saigon, but the chef shared that his phở doesn’t follow a distinctive style. Still, Thăng was adamant in assuring me that his phở philosophy is free of flavoring agents, MSG or sugar on principle.

A young Thăng behind the counter in Ohio in 2007. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Nhật Thăng.

With just a short chat with Thăng, anyone could see that he’s extremely serious about restauranteurship. Our chat had a ten-minute intermission so he could show me industrial-grade electric kettles on his phone and rave about their effectiveness in producing superior broth. At one point, we detoured to the kitchen to visit the warming cabinet housing clean bowls and the sink that’s equipped with hot water to sanitize hands. He also makes his own chili sauce by fermenting fresh chili peppers. The sauce bottles at Phở Lạc Việt, hilariously, carry a warning label — “our chili sauce is very spicy, don’t add too much.” The condiment, indeed, was potent. Even though I already heeded the label’s advice, the brightly colored concoction still did a number on my unassuming taste buds.

“Making phở requires its own unique process and a lot of passion. Not any layman can randomly decide to do it,” he told me. Coming from anyone else, this might sound like tired platitudes, but I believed it when he said it.

I touched one of those bowls! Sorry random diner.

We all know the delightful episode of history that led to Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. In the grand scheme of things, how Lạc Việt came to include lamb in its phở was undoubtedly less instrumental to the advancement of mankind, but it was no less serendipitous. It all started during the restaurant’s early years in the US, Thăng reminisced. One day, the place welcomed a local patron who had visited Hanoi before and thus had a hankering for the special phở served by the incomparable Phở Thìn. Instead of merely layering beef slices onto the noodles, Phở Thìn traditionally stir-fries the meat with garlic and onions — a style known as phở tái lăn. He requested that Thăng make an exception and replicate that method for his portion.

The chef obliged and got a line cook to fry up some beef they had already marinated. When Thăng checked the bowl afterwards, he noticed that something was amiss: the cook accidentally stir-fried lamb instead of beef. A replacement was quickly ordered for the hungry patron while Thăng decided he would eat the errant meat himself as a meal.

“When I tried it, I thought to myself: ‘How delicious!’ It [lamb] really fits phở,” he recalled. “After that I just put lamb phở up as a daily special because I don’t know if anyone would like it. But over time, everyone started ordering lamb phở way more than beef so I decided it would be a permanent menu item.”

Phở has been the centerpiece of Thăng’s career for a long time, so he’s tasted a myriad of phở renditions across Vietnam during his trips back. In mid-December of 2019, he landed in Saigon with the goal to experience the Christmas season in tropical southern Vietnam. “Christmas in Saigon is very fun. You live here, you know how it is,” he told me. “The city is very empty during Christmas in America because everybody spends time indoors with their family. Here people head to the street to celebrate. I went to Tân Định Church and it was packed!”

Phở Lạc Việt at night.

A few months later, the coronavirus descended upon us and Thăng had a crucial choice to make: to stay or to return. He picked the former, which turned out to be the right decision. Living in District 7, one day he spotted a commercial space available for rent in the neighborhood, and the rest is history.

Making phở from scratch is a tall order, as any sterling home cook would tell you, so I’m always grateful to live in a place where it’s present at every street corner, always hot and ready to remedy the toughest of hangovers. Phở cừu may not be for everyone, but if you’re ever bored of the basics, Phở Lạc Việt’s novel creations are worthy of at least one try.

Phở Lạc Việt is open from 6:30am to 9pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 3/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Khoi loves noodles, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Lamb phở and bánh mì phở

38 Street 17, Tan Phu Ward, D7

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