By Mark Antonation
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Every time I go to Ha Noi Pho, I stop for a moment in front of the doors and look at the hours, painted in white on the glass. They say the place opens at 8:30 a.m., but I've never made it here anywhere close to that early.
In fact, I've never been to Ha Noi Pho in the daytime at all. It's always night or late at night when I suddenly get a craving for this place and drive right past a dozen good and a few great Vietnamese restaurants in the area, a couple of Chinese joints I love, about a thousand taquerías. Somehow, I also steer clear of the pool halls with their parking lots full of fancy bikes and black-eyed crotch-rocket gangsters, the herbalists, the chiropractic clinics, the storefronts offering life insurance and phone cards, and the markets with their aisles full of fishscale and tamarind and durian, piñatas, bottled Fanta and indecipherable candy wrappers like the packaging for a particularly potent brand of acid. I'll pull up in front of this small strip-mall restaurant on South Federal, park and pause to read the hours written on the front door.
And then I'll step inside and ask the first person I see if the restaurant serves breakfast.
"Bathrooms right through there."
And whoever it is I'm talking to will point, gesturing emphatically to the short hallway past the cash register where, in fact, the bathrooms are located. Then, feeling bad about the misunderstanding, I will actually go to the men's room and stand there, just on the other side of the door, for what I imagine to be an appropriate amount of time before I re-emerge and take a seat.
I've been to Ha Noi Pho often enough that the owner, Phuoc Pham, his wife, Khanh, and some of the staff no doubt recognize me, remember me, think of me only as that white kid so crazy for Vietnamese food that he can't hold his pudding. What's more, even after all this humiliation, I've never been able to figure out if the restaurant actually has a breakfast menu. For all I know, the place could serve tamales, or pain baguette with chocolate, or Chiclets and roofing tar in the morning — because I've always been too embarrassed to ask a second time.
Instead, when I go to Ha Noi Pho, I walk up to the door, check the hours, step inside, ask about breakfast and end up in the bathroom. Happens every time.
Between the front door and the bathrooms, Ha Noi Pho isn't much more than a collection of tables, chairs, mirrors, maneki niko good-luck cats and a modest kitchen. But from that kitchen comes a killer menu as authentic and close to the bone as that of any Vietnamese restaurant in this city filled with really good, really authentic Vietnamese restaurants. Even so, unless they're from the neighborhood, are hard-core culinary explorers or fans of jellied duck's blood and paddy crab (like me), most people have never heard of Ha Noi Pho. And if they have, it's probably because the storefront was the site of a recent daylight shootout between one repeat-offending scumbag with an assault shotgun and very bad timing and the two DPD undercovers who just happened to be sitting in the dining room having lunch on the day that said scumbag decided he felt like knocking over a restaurant.
The result was four wounded, none dead, and the scumbag in the hospital with four big, leaking holes in him. Ha Noi Pho was shut down for just a couple of days. But visit now, and you can still see some of the scars: two bullet holes bored straight through a short, thick dividing wall between the two front doors, each about as big around as a lady's slim finger.
Though I'm not much of a war tourist, I get a chill looking at those two nasty punctuation marks. I was almost at Ha Noi Pho on the afternoon it happened. I had lunch plans — was actually going to see the place in daylight — but luckily, one of the people I was supposed to meet was dead set on another spot. Still, that makes four times in the past six years that I've narrowly avoided violence and gunplay at restaurants — sometimes by miles, sometimes by minutes — and that's four times too many.
It's a shame that Ha Noi Pho's most recent press was in the crime blotter, because what this restaurant should be known for is its decidedly ESL menu and the dedication that the Phams and their crew put into the construction of the food. The soup broths are made daily, reduced down from shank-bone stocks, and the coolers are packed with strange flora and bits of fauna pretty much unseen outside of the mother country. Sawgrass, fishscale mint, the Vietnamese equivalent of Mexican buche (which I'm sure has a name, but I'm sure I don't know it) and blood all figure heavily in the prep here. Strange mushrooms that look exactly like miniature smurf houses tend to bob up from the bottom of otherwise placid soups; strange twists of unidentifiable meat lurk like stiff eels in the depths.