Restaurant: Pho Tam
Last visited: May 14, 2011
Location: Surrey, BC (Whalley)
Address: 10302 135 Street
Train: Surrey Central Skytrain
Price Range: $10 or less, $10-20
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Vietnamese owned & operated
- Specializes in pho
- Rice & noodle menu only
- Generous portions
- Hole in the wall-ish
- Hidden gem
- Local favourite
- Busy for lunch/dinner
- Cheap eats/budget friendly
- Very casual/Very quick
- All women staff
- Cash only
- $4.50 min. charge/person
- Limited parking
- Take out/Eat in
- Mon-Fri 10am-10pm
**Recommendations: #1 House Special, Steamed Rice Rolls, French Style Iced Coffee with Milk
I took the photo just before closing, but the parking lot was packed. Due to what? Or do to who? The love for Pho Tam is very familiar to those in the neighbourhood, but outside of Whalley, this place is a hidden gem. Well actually even in Whalley this place is still a hidden gem. It’s kind of located behind a Safeway in a sketchy strip mall of local and family run Asian restaurants and shops.
It was everything an excellent Vietnamese restaurant should be. Shady, sketchy, cash only, Christmas light decor, and basically a hole in the wall serving cheap home made Vietnamese food in generous portions. It always helps when it’s full of Vietnamese locals too, and Pho Tam was!
“The Best Noodle Soup in Town” usually suggests “tourist trap”, but being in Whalley, I don’t have to worry about that. Although I might have to in five years if mayor Dianne Watts’ is able to make Whalley the “downtown” of Surrey!
Pho Tam wasn’t even my original plan. Being unfamiliar with the area I had actually made a wrong turn and that’s when I noticed the packed parking lot and bright yellow lights for “Pho Tam”. The name rang a bell and I had a feeling it was the famous pho restaurant in Whalley, but I had to resist the temptation. I was attempting for the third time a visit to Taste Nice for Caribbean food, but failed once again (I feel like that place opens when it wants), so I head back towards Pho Tam to settle my curiosity. I’m pleased to say that it was an awesome plan B!
Again I took this photo as it was closing, but this place was packed. I actually felt like I was back in Asia at one of those ghetto side street restaurants. With the communal dining and Vietnamese clientele, I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear, I was so excited! My eyes were going to pop out of my head! I just knew it was going to be a winner.
It’s family owned and operated with a 99% women staff (the only guy is a part time employee who works the cash register). These ladies sure know how to cook and work a restaurant, it felt like the Phnom Penh of Whalley, but to a lesser degree, and the menu is strictly Vietnamese and a bit limited with “mix and match” options of noodles and rice.
I knew there was an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in Whalley, but seriously how many Vietnamese places are there in Whalley with the word “pho” in it? I didn’t want to waste the trip out here on a mediocre place, but luckily I scored! I’ve been having such good luck in Whalley lately with Tokachi Japanese and Taste of Punjab that I didn’t want to ruin the streak. Whalley is on a definite winning streak for hidden gems, sketchy restaurants and more or less hole in the wall dives, and Pho Tam definitely makes the list of “must try’s” in the area.
On the table:
- Medium bowl $7 Large bowl: $7.50
- Special B: Any large beef soup and one salad roll $9.75 (taxes not included)
- The must order item at any Vietnamese restaurant is usually #1 or #2 – this was #1.
- This was definitely the winning item of the night and possibly “the best pho” (as much as I hate saying that) I’ve had to date outside of home cooked pho. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
- The broth looked great with the natural beef oils floating on top, but it wasn’t too oily either. It smelled great and was served nice and hot.
- There was a ton of beef in it and all the cuts were tender and plentiful.
- There was as much beef as there was noodles. It included beef balls, medium rare beef slices, beef brisket, tendons and tripe.
- The noodles were al dente and chewy, and the broth… oh gosh, the broth was amazing!
- It was so good its level of “goodness” was tied with an excellent Japanese Shio ramen broth.
- It was noticeably sweeter, but not too sweet or salty and so full and rich of beefy flavour.
- It had a hint of star anise for that aromatic background of sweet licorice flavour and you could just tell the beef was slow cooked and stewing all day.
- Included with Special B ($6.50 if ordered separately and includes 2 rolls)
- This was your standard salad roll, not particularly good, but decent. There wasn’t much pork or any mint leaves.
- The dipping sauce almost tasted like pure Hoisin sauce though and it barely had any peanut flavour. I also like mine with some tangy vinegar and a bit of heat. The best peanut dipping sauce I’ve had for Vietnamese spring rolls was at Slanted Door in San Francisco.
- This is one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes. Traditionally it’s a breakfast item, but I can eat it anytime.
- They did an excellent job with these rice rolls!
- It’s a very light dish and it’s traditionally served with bean sprouts, Vietnamese ham, deep fried shallots and cucumbers. In this case there were no cucumbers, but a few random shreds of lettuce and some basil leaves, which I didn’t mind at all. It made it more aromatic and almost like a salad.
- The sauce it’s served with is the classic orange coloured nuoc cham sauce or vinaigrette.
- There was a good amount of steamed rice rolls underneath, which are like steamed spring rolls.
- It’s a home made Vietnamese crepe stuffed with minced pork and black wood ear mushrooms.
- It’s very similar to the Chinese steamed rice rolls, but the wrapping is completely different. This one is more delicate with a slight chew and it’s paper thin and made of rice flour and tapioca starch, while the Chinese one is just rice flour.
- This crepe is served warm to almost room temperature and the rolls are really tender and just melt away in your mouth.
- The filling was a bit gluey and it’s lightly seasoned with some fish sauce, but it’s very mild.
- It’s ground pork, but it wasn’t lean, so there’s tons of pork flavour and it’s not chewy or gelatinous fat either.
- The black wood ear mushrooms were a bit overcooked and they lost their crunchy texture, but it was still very good.
- Together with the sweet, savoury and tangy nuoc cham sauce it was a world of textures and flavours especially with the basil leaves, bean sprouts and salty crispy shallots.
- There are better qualities of Vietnamese ham, and although this one isn’t the best, they gave 15-20 slices of it, and for the price it’s more than fair.
- I actually like this with crushed peanuts, but that’s my own tasty twist.
- It served with crushed peanuts and again the classic orange coloured nuoc cham sauce or vinaigrette.
- It’s a very aromatic bowl of noodles and perfect for warmer weather since it’s soupless.
- I love the combination of green onions, basil, and peanuts and with the sweet, savoury and tangy nuoc cham vinaigrette, it’s almost like a dry noodle salad.
- The grilled pork steak wasn’t too impressive because of the quality, although it was well marinated and flavoured with savoury sauces and Vietnamese herbs.
- The cut was just really gelatinous, thin, chewy and fatty so I wasn’t a fan of it.
- I’d order this with the grilled chicken or BBQ short ribs if I were to order it again.
- **Deep Fried Spring Rolls 9 (Cha Gio) – 4.5/6 (Very good – Excellent)
- I’m pretty sure this was their own version of a Vietnamese spring roll. The recipe was unlike any others I’ve had before. It was delicious!
- It was crispy on the outside and the inside was filled with creamy taro root, carrots, onions, garlic and minced pork and maybe some jicama root.
- The filling was creamy and crumbly and there wasn’t any cellophane noodles or mushrooms going on.
- I loved the texture of them, although I’ve had crispier Vietnamese spring rolls before.
- It was almost like a croquette with the creamy rich filling and the predominant flavours were taro root and pork. The pork was not completely lean so there was still good pork flavour going on, but it wasn’t gelatinous either.
- This was a very generous portion and there was a mountain of meat! Equal portion of meat and rice.
- The lemongrass chicken was decently marinated fillets of boneless dark meat chicken and they were well grilled, tender and juicy, but just a bit too fatty for my liking.
- I could have used more lemongrass in the marinade although I could still taste and see it.
- The beef short ribs are supposed to be the hot item here and it came recommended.
- I was kind of hoping the marinade on the beef short ribs was going to taste like the Luc Luc beef from Phnom Penh, but it wasn’t.
- This tasted like sweet Korean BBQ Short Ribs (Kalbi or Galbi ribs), but it was almost like jerky and a bit overcooked.
- The meat was quite chewy, but it was nicely grilled with charred flavour and an intense sweet and savoury Vietnamese herb marinade and glaze.
- It was a bit oily as expected, but just the quality of meat wasn’t great, although they weren’t bad.
- Vietnamese fried rice is different than the Chinese kind. It’s made with fish sauce instead of soy sauce for flavouring, but this wasn’t that salty at all.
- The fried rice was quite moist and almost like sticky rice here. They use day old rice (good thing) and it was almost clumpy.
- It’s pretty good with caramelized and charred shallots, scrambled eggs, peas, carrots and slices of fatty cured sweet Chinese sausage for added flavour.
- It seemed more pan-fried than wok fried and it was almost a chewy fried rice, but it was intended and I liked it.
- Served with an authentic Vietnamese coffee filter which makes for a stronger brew.
- It’s a French roast coffee mix, which is standard, and it’s mixed with condensed milk and ice.
- I think this one had some added Chicory root in the blend which makes for a stronger roasted coffee bean flavour.
- It was equal parts condensed milk and coffee and I’d ask for less condensed milk next time because I like the stronger bitter flavour in coffee.
- It doesn’t look like a lot, but that’s essentially how much you get if you order anything iced at Starbucks.
- It’s pretty freaking amazing. I love Vietnamese iced coffee and I highly recommend it if you’ve never had Vietnamese coffee before.
- It tastes like a combination of melted Werther’s Original candies and See’s coffee candies, but better.
- It’s an ultra creamy, rich and thick caramelized roasted coffee and it’s quite strong, bold and robust with intense flavour and a desired bitterness in the end notes.
- It’s sweet initially and almost like a dessert, but it’s as strong as it is sweet and the flavours linger even after a sip. Delicious!
- It reminds me of the kopi I had in Singapore – see here.
- **Warning: I had this at 9:30pm and I didn’t sleep until 8am… it’s strong!