While you would think that close proximity to the source would have those of us in KL dining on a proper bowl of pho whenever the mood strikes… Oh, reader — we’re so sorry to inform you how very wrong you are: While Saigon is a mere RM115, two-hour flight away, it may as well be Cape Horn (here), because we are, figuratively speaking, about that far away from getting the flavors right here.
Deciding to try a new pho place in Kuala Lumpur is to prepare yourself for the litany of indignities that are bound to come with it: Broth so saccharine, you wonder if someone dropped a honey lozenge inside; shriveled meat shavings — never the right cut, and always over-cooked; a basic, lackluster broth that always feels like it’s skimming the surface of beef bones rather than sinking down into their rich marrows.
If you are weak of heart (yes, we are), it’s usually just best not to bother. Do yourself a favor, and stick to the things that we Malaysians do best: Our own hella diverse repertoire of local food.
However, as the saying goes: Manz cannot live on laksa alone, and eventually the muddy confluence of a sore throat, runny nose, and epic hangover meet somewhere in Ampang, and demand you feed them pho. Now.
Cue Super Saigon — a new chain of “Melbourne pho” restaurants throughout Kuala Lumpur, purporting to bring fresh Aussie flavors to your humble bowl of noodles.
Considering we’ve had zero luck finding anything much closer to what we’d find in pho’s original home, we are now counter-intuitively turning to another region of the world altogether.
We visited Super Saigon, Ampang edition, on a weekend, unsure what to expect, mildly under the weather, and open to trying something that wasn’t our two-hundredth pizza from La Risatta (Ampang kids know).
Let’s break down the first two redeeming qualities that we are struck by when first entering: First, it’s nicely decorated by whoever that schmuck is that’s going around adding neon phrases to walls, and artfully hung plants throughout rooms.
Easy on the eyes, this Super Saigon, but we’re gonna need more than nice pottery to win us over, considering we eat off orange plastic plates on our better days.
Here is where Super Saigon surprises us: Their employees, waiters, busboys, chefs in the open kitchen, are genuinely pleasant, kind, helpful and exude the kind of positive energy you’re used to seeing from service industry individuals who are paid an actual living wage. Wait, are they from Melbourne too?
Jokes aside (but props to the great service), we came for pho, and pho is what we will have. Beef pho (duh). We got ours minus all of the intestines, tripe stripes, and crunchy bits that we know it’s supposed to come with. To each his/her own.
Whatever combination of beef bits you decide to get, a bowl of the pho will set you back RM18.90, while the combination bowl with all the cuts is RM19.90.
We also ordered a portion of the fresh summer rolls (RM9.90), and a banh mi (RM12.90): Maybe if we were painfully full, our collective ailments verging on flu would feel less bad?
Friendly service wasn’t the only good omen at Super Saigon: Right there at the table were the holy trinity of personal palate players — fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and garlicky chili.
Pro tip: If a pho restaurant has only a bottle of soy sauce at the table to modify your broth, just leave. Really, don’t bother.
We’re usually the type to order coffee when at a Vietnamese joint, but it was a bit too late in the day to introduce caffeine into our sleep cycle. We opted for a pandan lemongrass drink (RM4.90) and a longan fruit (RM6.90) one instead.
Let’s make this clear from the jump, if it wasn’t already obvious by our disdain at a sweetened broth: We don’t like excessive sugar, and generally go out of our way to avoid things that are slowly poisoning us.
We got our drinks, and these two babies had enough glucose in them to simultaneously burn a hole on our tongues, while also giving our teeth a new layer. Super Saigon, for the sake of our collective health and pancreatic futures, please ease up on all the sugar; you’re sweet enough already.
Within a couple of minutes, and despite a fully-booked house, our piping hot bowl of pho was in front of us. Behold:
Medium rare sliced beef, slowly browning in our bowl, and a very necessary side of fresh bean sprouts, herbs, lime and chilies, to add at your own discretion.
Before anything was adulterated, we took a sip of the soup. More than anything, it’s about the broth. This one was rich in color and in taste, and had a tangy, spice hit that we loved. Nary a hint of the sweetness that plagues so many bowls, and we were struck by the broth’s complexity.
We’re not here to tell you that MSG is going to kill you because it won’t, but we all know when we’re eating a dish that’s been a bit too liberally doused in the synthetic flavor agent. It tastes good, but a little too good. Like a shiny new showroom condo, everything on the surface seems great, but when you seek depth, you’re faced with the reality that the only thing holding the countertop together is hot glue.
Super Saigon doesn’t fall into this easy trap, and their soup tastes as though the bones that flavored it were roasted and boiled for hours. We still added a bit of fish sauce, and all the fixings, ‘cuz that’s how we like our pho. Also, we wouldn’t have objected to white pepper being made available, but that’s only a minor detail.
Less minor, and something we’d like to address: The spoons.
Aiyo — you go and make this great pho, and instead of the typical Chinese soup spoons we’re used to having to carry it into our mouths, we have these shallow f*ckers. It’s a lot harder to load them with “the perfect bite” — you need the depths and high sides to ensure enough of a noodle to soup ratio, with a bit of meat on top.
We also tried this sautéed beef over a mound of broken rice (RM18.90). A precarious egg yolk quivered on top, looking as though it were seconds away from dripping gold on to the plate.
The beef was perfectly cooked, tender, rich in umami flavors, and sweet only from the natural caramelization that coated the strips. Delightful.
There are a couple of slices of something that looks like tempeh, but isn’t — it’s cha trung, a steamed egg meatloaf. It tastes better than it sounds, though this one was pretty mild tasting.
We’ve got a deep, deep love of summer rice paper rolls — a love that goes way back, when we used to live in NYC (admittedly not a great pho city, but still.)
Personal preference has us erring on the frenemy side of the peanut sauce dip, though. Sometimes we don’t mind it, but it usually gets on our nerves. Instead, we used the sauce from their broken rice dish, and jacked it up with more chili sauce. Now that’s a winner.
Fresh, nicely stuffed, and satisfying — we could find no fault with these guys. We would have ordered more, but we also ordered that banh mi that we forgot about… until it came.
Oh, sh*t — we ordered that too, didn’t we?
Here’s the thing. We don’t love pate, and this makes the banh mi and ourselves unlikely bedfellows — the sandwich is usually stuffed with various lightly picked vegetables, laden with pork meats, and slathered with pate.
This Super Saigon is a halal restaurant, perhaps we could bring ourselves to giving their banh a chance?
We decided on a lemongrass chicken iteration that made no mention of pate, so we pretended that there was none in there: If you can brush childhood liver-eating traumas under the rug, then you can probably hide pate under lettuce.
Arriving on a crusty loaf, this sandwich looked promising. Look at how deliriously stuffed it was:
Was this bun scooped? It certainly looked like the insides had been scooped out to make room for more delicious filling. We forgot we were full and grabbed a half, biting hard.
The chicken was warm, with toasted flavors. The pickles were fresh, crunchy. The vegetables were a different kind of fresh and crunchy. This was a damn good sandwich, but we’ll warn you — there was a glut of fresh chilies inside.
We love heat, and any pedas (spice) is a welcome feature for us on quite possibly everything we eat. We loved that it had this much chili, and it made our sandwich just that little bit more Malaysian without being an insult to the original.
One of us did cough for a good five minutes after trying a bit, though, so if you’re wary… maybe ask them to hold off on those chilis.
Details are everything to us, and we loved how the toasted bread stayed firm from beginning to end, without going soggy. However, would we have like it to have a less flaky, cotton texture? Yes. Are baguettes the superior vessel for this kind of eating? Absolutely. Will it stop us from ordering it again? Probably not.
After two mains, two drinks, a starter, and an extra sandwich for good measure, our bill was RM78. We haven’t eaten this well, for so little, in a long, long time.
There you have it: A pho restaurant we love, and recommend. Go visit one before they’re impossible to get a table at any given weekend.
Locations in Ampang, Hartamas, and TTDI.
Coming soon: Bangsar