So PHAT (pretty hot and tempting)
FEAST WITH ME - Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi (The Philippine Star) - February 20, 2014 - 12:00am

While everyone goes gaga over ramen and random ramen joints keep popping up around the metro like an uncontrollable mushroom colony, I have never really joined the bandwagon. In their quest to make things extra-special, the soups are often so rich you could float a little paper boat on the glistening pools of fat and pretend it’s a tanker that’s just had an oil spill on an ocean of noodles. Sure, sure, I’ll grant that some really taste good, but after three spoons I’m already dizzy, the world spinning woozily on a cholesterol high. Some will say, “She probably doesn’t like soup, anyway.” Well, that’s a falsehood if I ever heard one. I love soup. I love soup probably even more than the Portuguese do. I make my own soups and frankly I consider myself a bit of a soup master.

The thing is, what bugs me about the too-rich ramens going around (personally, I’m an udon fan. Thick noodles in a light bouillon) is that I can’t even enjoy the soup anymore. I want to be able to drink the entire bowl. To fill my soul with comfort akin only to a mother’s warm embrace when you’re sick. To nurse my sorrows and fire up my heart. I want to drink the flavors, imbibe the stories, to get lost in a swirling, swishing bowl of harmonious delight. A good lentil chorizo soup when I’m feeling Hispanic. A fresh gazpacho to brighten and freshen a summer’s day. A fiery Mexican corn chowder for those piquant moments. A gingery arroz caldo to ease away the sniffles. But when I want noodles, there’s only one kind of soup at the top of my list: a good Vietnamese pho.

I love the deceptively clear but flavorful broth. The elegant undulating lines the rice noodles form at the bottom of the bowl. The floating bits of soy sprouts looking like little boats manned by captains with tiny yellow Vietnamese hats. The glorious mountain of fresh herbs and greens — the lush vegetation of a tropical island. The bright squeeze of fresh lime, whose pressed-out remains I allow to wallow in the liquid, the flavor continuing to linger.

Depending on the day, sometimes I prefer the easy taste of a pho ga or chicken pho. Strips of white meat bobbing about, nice and chewy. Other days a good pho bo with paper-thin slices of practically raw beef slowly cooking in the hot soup. I love how you can make it your own. Add more herbs, sprinkle with fiery fresh chili, turn the liquid a pleasantly red cloudy color with some Sriracha or thicken it with some plum sauce. Each person’s pho is different. It’s an intimate and almost soulful experience.

I am a diehard fan of Vietnamese cuisine. The balance of flavor, the unabashed use of fresh herbs and crunchy raw vegetables, the boldness of ingredients like nuoc mam and lemongrass… and those lovely sweet crispy shallots that I would buy in the Vietnamese groceries of Paris and eat like chips. It’s always clean, fragrant and never, ever tastes prefabricated. Whether you are in a refined setting or squatting on a small sticky plastic stool street-side nibbling on grilled quail, Vietnamese cuisine has an underlying elegance to it.

While there are already quite a few establishments around the city, there’s one that just opened and has the goal of definitely shaking things up. PHAT Pho is the brainchild of Abaca Group’s Jason Hyatt, known for popular Cebu-based restos such as Maya, Tavolata and Abaca, as well as the original Phat Pho. In collaboration with Manila’s rising F&B player, The Moment Group, responsible for hip and tasty joints such as ‘Cue, BurgerBar and NamNam, they have decided to bring the Vietnamese street-food-counter dining concept to Manila.

“We are not trying to be authentic. We are just trying to serve good food, fast. Besides, the only thing really authentic in this country is Filipino food,” explains Hyatt frankly. My turn to be frank: again, I love Vietnamese food and had to come in — as with any restaurant — free from prejudice. How could I not compare it to the Bun Thit Cha Gio I ate in Ben Tanh Market in Ho Chi Minh? Or to the pho ga from Madame Hien in Hanoi? “Everything is pretty traditional albeit in our style,” Hyatt continues. “We had to get over regional issues and make the menu appeal to the great common denominator. Is it authentic? Not exactly. Is it fusion? Not all. It all comes down to food that is prepared with a bit of love.”

A bite of their lemongrass grilled satay skewers (Angus is my absolute favorite) and I was stripped of all my preconceived notions. Who cares if it didn’t taste exactly like that little barbecue joint in Saigon? All that mattered was that it tasted good. Really good. Fresh ingredients, food made when ordered and a really good, clean-tasting pho served up in less than 30 seconds. Yes. If you eat at the counter you can order a speedy pho and be in and out quicker than in McDonald’s or Jollibee.

Their fish cakes are made from scratch and really good. That’s saying a lot because I normally scrunch my nose at these mystery meat-looking patties. There are healthy goi cuons or fresh rice rolls for those looking for a light bite, a really nice fried rice or wok-fried noodles for those not into soup, and their own version of banh mi for a grab-and-go kind of day.

My personal favorite is the Bun noodle bowls. Cold rice noodles topped with fresh salad and veggies, pickles, grilled pork and fried spring rolls. It’s the perfect compromise between healthy and indulgent — chewy, fresh, crispy, sweet, sour and spicy all at the same time.

Don’t expect to have cushy seats and special treatment. This establishment is meant to be casual, fast, easy, fun and most importantly, tasty. In fact, don’t be fooled — PHAT is not some obscure Vietnamese word but a cheeky play on the slang Pretty Hot And Tempting — in this case, Tasty.

That’s it. I finally got it. PHAT Pho is not modern, nor fusion Vietnamese, it’s cheeky Vietnamese. Playful, friendly, accessible and urban. Did I mention tasty? Like really PHAT pho sho, yo!

Corporate chef Greg Villalon of The Moment Group shares his quick pho bo recipe, perfect for those who are too lazy to leave home.

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PHAT Pho is at the ground floor, Serendra, BGC.

For information, call 843-0820

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