By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
It's Saturday night and it's raining -- long, vicious sheets of water not just falling, but slapping the ground as if the pavement had said something nasty about the rain cloud's mother. I'd made the dash from my car to the door in a scuttling hunch -- the way you see people on the Weather Channel fleeing a hurricane -- and then collapsed at one of the two tables by the window. I'd tried to protect my book, a compendium of Douglas Adams novels, under my raincoat, one of those models that are shown in catalogues withstanding a force-three North Atlantic gale, but that actually can't survive even a JC Penney perfume spritz without going as limp and useless as a brown paper bag. So now I sit, steaming, under the buzzing neon pho bowl and the glowing red-and-blue "OPEN" sign in the window. I am the only customer -- round-eyed or otherwise -- stupid enough to come out in this weather.
I need a minute to collect myself, and the waiter, seeing this, raises his hands and backs off, laughing quietly while I sit there, out of breath and pushing wet hair out of my face. I pull napkins out of the dispenser, scrub my face, mush more napkins between the sodden pages of my book. I take off my useless raincoat (which I'd bought precisely, if unwisely, for moments like this -- for sitting in the window seat of an Asian noodle house while the rain falls outside like Deckard in the opening scene of Blade Runner) and hang it over the back of my chair. I stand, ball up the napkins and throw them into the busboy's cart, which sits in the narrow passageway by the shared kitchen that connects Pho 2000 with the restaurant next door.
"Ready?" the waiter asks.
Boba tea: $3.25
Coke, in the can: $.95 Summer rolls: $2.95
Pho bo vien: $4.95/$5.50
Pho seafood: $6.50
Super Bowl: $5.95/$6.95
"Yes, I think so."
He follows me back to my table. The rain smacks against the window. We both look outside, but the world beyond Pho 2000 is just blackness. The dining room is a womb of light, the bare fluorescents hung high on the vaulted ceiling making it look more like a surgical suite than a restaurant. The walls are white and spotless. The ceiling is white. The chairs are white. Any color -- the muted, scrubbed, pastel tile on the floor, the pale bluish-gray of the tabletops -- is washed in whiteness and seems to glow with a live electric haze. The gleam of the neon tints it, the colorful bottles on each table punctuate it, but the white is overpowering. It is titanium, fresh snow, winter lightning. It gets under your skin, makes you glow like radiation.
And outside is nothing but the pitch of distant fury. I can't see the sidewalk, the parking lot or Parker Road beyond. The world could end while I sit here, and I wouldn't know it until I stepped back out into the smoking ruin.
Which is just fine by me, of course, and one of the reasons I love this place so much. Walking in is like going elsewhere. Walking out, the anarchic fourteen-year-old inside me always secretly hopes to step into a different world, one undeniably changed while I was busy eating. And every time it isn't, my inner Nihilist says, Well, maybe next time.
I turn back to the waiter, order Vietnamese coffee, Coke in the can, pho bo vien and summer rolls. (Pho 2000 also offers spring and egg rolls.) He writes, nods. "One minute," he says -- which sounds terribly optimistic, even if I am his only customer -- and retreats.
Here's an SAT-style question: Haute French cuisine is to British as Japanese kaiseki-ryori is to blank. Give up? It's Vietnamese -- specifically, pho -- a cuisine about as diametrically opposed to the formality of Japanese as you can get. People study tea kaiseki for years, learning how to form the rice and walk through the door and serve the natto and make the tea, trying to master it the way others study edo sushi techniques or origami. Pho, in comparison, is the ultimate do-it-yourself Asian cuisine. It is big where Japanese is little, expansive where Japanese is precious. And like Brit cooking (which, until recently, has been more concerned with practicality and utility than, say, taste), it is peasant food, lacking any pretension, based on frugality and the whole-food ethos that demands the use of any possible edible bit of everything used in its making. That means flank and round as well as loin, bone and marrow, tendon, tail and tripe -- everything.
Pho broth is slow-cooked, simmered and reduced simple stock kicked up with onions boiled until translucent, green onion stalks and spices. There's always salt, but never pepper. I've tasted star anise and cinnamon before, and lemongrass and soy. Pho broth is never the same from one place to the next, or even from one day to the next at the same place. Every minute the broth sits on the stove changes its character in small ways. Every minute it sits before you, cooling as you eat, changes it. The soup at the top of the bowl will taste different from the soup at the bottom. Along with the broth come noodles, of course -- a softened nest of them is laid in the bowl before the broth is poured over the top. That changes the pho's temperament. So do all the other ingredients, including proteins in wondrous, sometimes frightening variety, and the sides upon sides upon sides.