Phở Cocktails in Hanoi
“Where’s the unicorn?” my six-year-old asked as we stepped inside the dimly-lit Unicorn Pub, a short walk from Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake.
The pub, famous for its phở cocktail, was the final stop on our eating, drinking and sightseeing blitz of Vietnam’s capital for an airline magazine. Our weekend of research had been hampered by the presence of U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, whose motorcades had slowed our progress around the city.
Making our final stop was a giant relief, for we had a plane to catch and really didn’t want to miss this mysterious drink that claims to capture the flavors of Vietnam’s national dish, phở noodle soup.
We settled into the small lounge area, sprawling across two sets of kindergarten-sized tables. Children are a relatively common sight in bars in Vietnam, so no one batted an eye at the smallest of our gang. Her presence was instead treated as a cause for celebration.
“Mummy, the unicorn,” Miss Six said.
That’s when I had to confess that it was possible there was no unicorn at the Unicorn Pub. A glass of lemonade wasn’t adequate compensation for the lack of mythical beasts, but she didn’t complain. I don’t think she really expected a unicorn.
We left a miniature Twilight Sparkles and a bamboo dragonfly in charge of our tables, and went to watch the adult drinks being prepared at the bar.
We were the only patrons. It was far too early for cocktail hour for Hanoi’s hipsters, who were either at work or still asleep. The staff-to-customer ration was four-to-three, and we had a great view of the action.
The barman lifted a tall metal tree onto the bar. Three of the tree’s branches contained small silver pots. The barman filled the first with star anise, the second with cardamom and the third with slivers of cinnamon. A generous slug of gin and another of Cointreau went into a jug, which was then lit on fire and poured into the highest pot. The order of the pots is important for faithfully matching phở flavors.
The flaming liquid trickled from pot to pot, generating a very phở-like aroma. I suspect the reason the lights are so low in the pub is to enhance the visual appeal of the cocktail. The thin column of blue flame rising above the bar is a spectacular sight.
The liquor, now tea-brown, was poured into a lowball glass. A second barman added chilled and shaken lime juice, sugar syrup and coriander.
The drink was then garnished with slices of lime and chilli, a star anise pod and a shard of cinnamon. Beside each drink was a little bowl of lime wedges and chilli, the traditional accompaniment to a bowl of phở.
One sip confirmed it: the drink contains the flavors of phở without tasting like cold soup. It was sweet and flavorful, with a kick of alcohol (I was worried the alcohol would have burnt off) and a tingle of chilli and coriander, as well as smoky notes of star anise and cinnamon.
There might not have been any unicorns at the Unicorn Bar but there was quite a bit of magic in the phở cocktail. We even had time for a second one before our flight.