Remember that last time when you ate something so often and so much of it that you swore you’ll never touch it again? I’d love to say that it happened to me when I went on a city wide quest to find Montreal’s best pho after slurping through over 30 bowls of it. But no, this elevated sodium and MSG ladened soup stupor opened some sort of heroine addiction like floodgate in me. I have since had pho at least once a month since – I know that is modest, a friend of mine once ate bananas everyday for three weeks, and now he can’t even look at a pack of Post-Its without dry heaving.
Just when I thought I was all pho-ed out, a spot opened up and snuck its way on to my phodar. Sen Vang is a modest little spot in Cote des Neiges located in what used to be a spot that housed an Indian restaurant, that once was another Vietnamese restaurant. The menu is concise to say the least, it lists three pho dishes, three egg noodles dishes, three rice dishes and a big section of “that’s all we’ve got, take it or suck it”.
I hit up Sen Vang with my dad – who holds (held) a now defunct and unofficial record of destroying Montreal’s biggest bowl of pho – a five-pound behemoth family sized bowl of pho back when I was younger. The monster finished the soup and all. Called the “locomotive” because it resembled the front end of a old fashioned steam engine that rivals “challenge” bowls of pho, like the one from Pho Garden in San Francisco. *NOTE* The above picture is NOT of my dad.
He ordered the “dac biet” or the house “special”. This classic soup of thinly sliced raw beef, well-done beef, flank steak, tripe, tendon and beef meat balls, garnished with scallions and raw white onions. The soup was fragrant and deep in flavour. What stood out first was the inherent sweetness of the stock – who’s fragrance is heightened with the seeping of Thai basil. Very generous in the sliced beef, the tendon was tender and fell apart in your mouth. The tripe was sliced thick – as opposed to other places that are sliced thin and blends in as a discrete texture to each bite of noodles – took on it’s own roll and was substantial as an element that stood on it’s own like any other ingredient in this bowl.
I had the Bun Bo Hue (pronounced “boon-bo-hway). If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a spicy (obviously from the picture) beef based soup that a lot of places serve on the weekend. The broth’s balance of salty, sour, sweet and savoury balances on a fine line where a little bit in either direction will throw the soup off completely. There is a profound depth of flavour in this noodles dish, fragrant in lemongrass and spices, the toppings are similar to the dac biet, with the addition of black pepper “cha lua” – Vietnamese steamed pork loaf, the same that’s found in banh mi, however, the rice noodles in this dish are thicker and cylindrical.
The bun bo hue comes with a special chili sauce of its own – called sate. This is the mojo of the dish; a combination of chilies, garlic, shrimp paste, unicorn tears and souls of vegans, the recipe is probably a family recipe. From the looks of it, you can guess that the thing is spicy, but the colour is misleading. Yes, for the most part the soup and sauce will tickle your tongue, but what stands out most is the fragrance and flavour that’s drawn out. The heat from the chilies comes second to the subtle overtones of fruitiness of the pepper itself – which compliments the robust beefiness of the soup.
I can safely add San Veng to the official list of pho I’ve had in Montreal, will it crack the top three… or five? I’m not sure yet. For a place that’s been opened for little more than six weeks, I’ve already been twice, so I guess that’s saying enough. Bun bo hue is usually served on the weekends at certain Vietnamese restaurants – due to the time it takes to prepare it. But Sen Vang serves it everyday and do so secretly – it isn’t on the menu and you have to ask for it by name.