Clarence in Paris: Pho Banh Cuon 14
129 Avenue de Choisy, 75013 Paris
I’ve always been lucky to live in places with excellent Vietnamese food. Growing up in Denver, we often went out for phở on Federal Boulevard when we would ditch class in the afternoons in high school (for the record, I still really like Pho 95 in Denver, popularity be damned.) Moving to Orange County for graduate school yields a few perks, including access to gorgeous beaches and close proximity to Westminster and Garden Grove, where you can take phở eating as seriously as you might in Saigon. While I know that it’s traditionally a breakfast thing, to me phở is most appealing when I’m fighting a cold or when it’s cold and dismal outside. As it’s basically been the latter situation for the past four months in Paris (why, oh why do all the best cities involve WINTER?), I’ve took my phở-finding in this town quite seriously.
I assumed (warning: political correctness lapse forthcoming) that France’s colonial history in Vietnam would yield a serious wealth of Vietnamese restaurants in Paris. To be honest, so far I’ve been rather disappointed. I (like my fantasy-friend Mark Bittman), was excited to eat bánh mì in Paris, as it seems like the classic ingredients of phở served on a baguette (with the addition of lovely French things like good pâté) would be the ultimate in French-Vietnamese street food. And my conclusion? Eh. They make some decent bánh mì at Thieng Heng (to the left of the Tang Frères supermarket at 50 rue d’Ivry in the 13th) and Saigon Sandwiches (8 rue de la Présentation in the 11th). Predictibly, the baguettes are better and so is the pâté – though they are closer to the consistency of rillettes at both locations. But compared to the tangy, spicy bánh mì I’ve eaten in New York and Los Angeles, the French versions are bland, bland, bland. Where are the bird chiles or the jalapeños? Where is the vinegary bite to the carrots and the daikon? Actually, where is the daikon?! This isn’t exactly surprising – the French palate is entirely intolerant of spicy food. The French family that my friend B lives with nearly died when he served them a pretty tame chili con carne. And before anyone starts getting agitated about this minor criticism I’m making of the French palate (I can anticipate the Angry Reader before he even shows up now!), I’ll acquiesce and say that I’m sure my tastebuds have been so damaged by my spicy-food promiscuity that I’m numb to the kind of nuance the average French person takes for granted.
But seriously guys, grow a pair.
Obviously, I’m a terrible food writer because I spend half my entry talking about my preferences before I get to my actual review of the restaurant in question. So anyway, to get to Pho Banh Cuon 14. It’s pretty good! It’s definitely the best phở I’ve found in Paris! And the crowds seem to agree – this place is always packed and you can anticipate standing in line for about ten minutes outside, especially if you are in a larger group of people (I definitely wouldn’t go on a weekend if I was with more than three people). They have a pretty standard list of phở meat options, including rare steak, beef meatballs, tripe, and chicken (no tendon, which is disappointing, and no seafood options, but maybe that is a California thing?). Their phở is served with white onions, greens that resemble dandelion greens, Thai basil, Thai chili peppers, lemon wedges, bean sprouts, and cilantro, as well as the requisite Sriracha (the only thing standing between this spicy-food addict and madness in Paris). The broth is hearty and satisfying, and I believe that they make their rice noodles in house. In every possible way, this phở gets the job done. They also have some pretty killer fried spring rolls (a bit of a misnomer, as they are entirely filled with pork) and an assortment of drinks involving sweet azuki beans, coconut milk, and tapioca pearls if that is your thing. The staff is friendly and efficient. Would I recommend that you go here if you were in Paris for a weekend? Absolutely not. But if you are spending an extended period of time in Paris and you’ve got certain needs, Pho Banh Cuon 14 is a pretty great place to get those met. Incidentally, how bobo am I to feel like I need decent phở on a regular basis? Talk about a First World problem!
Details: Open everyday from 9 a.m to 11 p.m. They don’t take reservations (obviously, it’s a phở place). Be prepared to wait in the evenings, and avoid bringing a large group. They don’t accept bank or credit cards, and there isn’t an ATM nearby, so come with cash in hand.
That dandelion-like greens are called culantro, native of Mexico and South America. According to Wikipedia, “the anticonvulsant properties of this plant have been scientifically investigated”.
There’s no pho where I live now, but Seattle abounds in them. One of my favorite places serves sweet custard filled buns for dessert.