The clink of beer glasses, the buzz of happy conversation and laughter, the fragrance of stir-fried garlic and beef – this is the night ambience on a 100 meter section of Ngu Xa Street near the Truc Bach Lake.
This street section is the pho cuon (pho rolls) hub in Hanoi.
The story is that one day, a noodle soup seller on this street ran out of broth for her pho bo (beef noodles soup). A thinker on her feet, she served her late diners with a new dish by simply wrapping cooked beef with some herbs in uncut pho noodle sheets. Thus was the pho cuon born. Today, it is among the most favored finger foods in the city.
Nguyen Tuyet Mai, owner of the Huong Mai Pho Roll in Ngu Xa Street, Ba Dinh District, said it is an uncomplicated dish with simple ingredients: fresh rice sheets, beef, coriander, carrot, garlic, chili and fish sauce.
The recipe is simple, too: stir fry the beef with some salt, sliced garlic and pepper; prepare green herb; and wrap and roll all this in the rice paper sheet. Then, dip it into fish sauce with sliced chili and garlic, salted papaya or cucumber.
However, Mai added that getting this simple dish just right is not all that simple. Stir frying is the secret. "If the beef is tough and chewy, no one will return to my restaurant.
"Neither overcook nor undercook the beef. Each strip should be supple enough so that patrons can bite through the roll of soft rice paper, tender beef strip and a bit of fresh coriander all together."
She said with pho cuon she could taste everything in one bite: soft fresh rice paper, tender stir-fried garlic beef and fresh herbs dipped in a sauce that was salty enough, but also slightly sweet, sour and spicy at the same time.
Joanne Ng TF, a Singaporean, who had taken her friend to Mai’s restaurant and was a regular, said that pho cuon is "both yummy and healthy for summer."
"Very cheap as well!" her friend said, adding that she would recommend that people spend time in this area to "see a different side of Hanoi from the Old Quarter."
There are more than ten pho cuon restaurants along this 100 m section of the street, so Mai knows if she does not make the best one, others are waiting.
Another aspect of the dish is that different restaurants try to make their own dipping sauce. They have their particular combination of fish sauce, sugar, vinegar and pepper, and customers who favor it tend to become regular patrons.
After visiting the famous Tran Quoc Pagoda nearby, Victoria, an English tourist, and two friends thoroughly enjoyed some pho cuon and a few glasses of beer. Their bill was a very reasonable VND240,000 (about $10).
"The dish is delicious and different from the typical pho noodle soup that needs chopsticks and spoons," she wrote on the TripAdvisor website.
Among the most popular restaurants are Huong Mai at 25 Ngu Xa, Hung Ben at 33 Ngu Xa and Rolls 31 Ngu Xa at 31 Ngu Xa.
Anyone who has done it will tell you that one of the great ways to enjoy a summer evening in the capital city is to drink some beer and have some pho cuon with friends as the breeze blows in from the Truc Bach Lake.