"The best Vietnamese noodles in town" have kept the crowds coming back to Thanh Ky on Yongkang Street for 25 years and the family business is more popular than ever. You have to queue for a place on the weekend when families visit and office workers keep it busy throughout the week.
They usually come for the pho, one of Vietnam's most delicious exports. It's a broth made of cracked beef bones, steeped in herbs, vegetables and a special fish sauce. Meat and noodles are added toward the end of the cooking process and a slice of lemon tops it all off with a little zest.
"Our family secret is the seasoning," says Steven Tu (杜與方), the second-generation manager whose Vietnam-born father Tu Han-chen (杜漢琛) came to Taiwan when the communists took over. "My Dad is the master behind the dishes. He loves eating. It's his hobby and his greatest pleasure, so he's full of ideas."
Immersion in the family business and a graduate course in hotel management and catering at a London university have obviously paid off for Tu Junior, who took over the day-to-day running of Thanh Ky three years ago and has made it one of the best-run joints in town. The fundamentals (good food, hygiene and service) are not difficult in theory, but in practice most restaurants find them difficult to keep up.
Asked for his management philosophy, the 30-year-old insisted he is still learning his trade but listed three ideas. "Value for money comes first. Cleanliness is essential and maintenance is most important. Also, keep the staff happy because they do most of the work."
Even so, midweek at lunchtime Tu was found in the kitchen keeping an eye on the pho broth. "I do all the jobs that need to be done because you have to keep an eye on things to keep in good shape. I even do the dishwashing. You can tell from the leftovers whether the food is good and what is popular and what is not."
Though the pho is justifiably the biggest draw at Thanh Ky there are plenty of other items on the menu to activate the taste buds, including starters such as Thai style shrimp cakes and a Vietnamese variant of the traditional hot pot. Traditional desserts such as jackfruit with coconut milk and a coffee percolated Vietnamese style round off the meal perfectly.
What you get at Thanh Ky is not fancy and the decoration is nothing special, just white walls livened up by bright ceramic pictures of typical rural Vietnamese scenes. The tables have faux wooden formica tops and the orange-uniformed staff is efficient rather than solicitous. But this is a first-class restaurant and will be around for many more years to come. A high-end diner planned for next year should also be worth waiting for.