Bowled over by Pho 95
We all watched as the little girl with the blue leotard and blonde hair staggered on the mats. We all watched as she stood there, staring blindly out into the crowd, glancing up at the uneven bars, furrowing her small brows.
Everyone in the place was watching. The room was quiet. Not silent (that would've only happened in the movie version of this moment), but expectant.
"She's gotta get back up there," said a man at a table on the other side of the room. "She's got to."
By one of the community tables in the middle of the floor, the two waiters had stopped, stunned, when the little girl had fallen — smashing her chest and chin into the bars, hitting the ground on her feet, dazed but somehow unbroken. Now they sat, both of them having sunk into chairs to stare up at the big TV at the back of the room on which, for some reason, an entire restaurant full of people was watching women's gymnastics. All of us riveted. No one able to look away.
"They'll show it again," someone said.
"She has to get back up there first."
No one was eating. No one was talking about anything else. Everyone was twisted in their seats, staring at the screen while the little girl stood, frozen. Aaron Le, the young owner of the restaurant, maybe one of the great floormen in Denver right now, stood off to the side near the registers, watching the TV at an angle, but also watching his customers, waiting for the spell to break. The waiters were stuck, transfixed by the drama on the screen. The rest of us were all leaning forward, watching the little girl, willing her to get back up on the bars, to move, to blink, to do something.
But she didn't. She stood there, staring, gasping for breath, every camera capturing her in tight close-up. The announcers were muttering softly, using their golf-course voices. And for what might've been ten seconds, might've been an hour, everyone in the dining room at Pho 95 waited along with the girl.
Finally, as if suddenly released from the enchantment of the lights, she slapped her hands together, turned and made a leap for the bars, finishing her routine without incident. And while none of us cheered (that would've been cheesy) or applauded (again, save it for the Hollywood script treatment), we, too, felt released from something — a crack in the invisible ice that'd kept us all rooted, for a minute or an hour, in our places, all eyes stuck on one small girl whose name we didn't even know.
"Hey, brother! How you doing?" Le's voice suddenly sounded from the back of the floor, his smile focused like a laser over the heads of the seated parties, welcoming the next table.
The waiters stood. People turned to once again sink their faces into the aromatic steam rising from their bowls of pho.
It'd been a strange moment of togetherness in the dining room — twenty or thirty or forty adults all stuck in place, watching girl's gymnastics — but it spoke somehow to the magic of the room rather than the oddity of the moment. There's just something about Pho 95 that inspires such togetherness, creates a temporary community that clicks in the minute you walk through the door and doesn't leave you quite so fast when going the other direction.
Part of the magic is the food: pho, pho and more pho, the most recognizable example of the Vietnamese canon, a street food lifted whole from the avenues of Saigon and Bien Hoa (where Le was born and grew up) and brought to the United States by waves of immigrants who came here following the war and the reconstruction. Pho is a family meal. It is Vietnamese fast food. It is eaten all day and all night and represents the soul of an entire cuisine. And the best pho shops — those that remain most true to the style and temper of the originals half a world away — are ones that serve fast and generously to a crowd of fans who all immediately become neighbors, whether or not they truly are neighbors in any physical sense.
On Saturday night — the night of the gymnastics competition, my first time in Pho 95's dining room — this crowd was a mutt's bag of Vietnamese families and couples out on cheap dates, of youth and age, of white kids like me and crowds of Asian teenagers and tables of Mexican guys looking for soup and company. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the community tables that run down the center of Pho 95's single, boxy dining room, or scattered around in the booths that line the walls. Everyone was eating pho, because even though there are a few noodle bowls on Pho 95's menu, a couple rice dishes, pho is what this kitchen does best (and perhaps better than anyone else in town), and everyone seemed to be a close, personal friend of Le's — regardless of whether they'd ever met him before.
Walking by my table, he stopped and laid a hand on my arm, looked me in the eye. "Everything good?" he asked. "Can I get you anything else? Do you need anything?"
Because my face was full of pork and shrimp spring roll and good, smooth peanut sauce, I merely shook my head and grunted in a way that I hoped expressed my complete satisfaction.
Le nodded, patted my shoulder. "Okay, man. You have any questions, you just ask me, okay?"
I nodded, fought to swallow, and grinned at him like an idiot — warmed by his real concern.
Then he moved on to the next table and did the same thing. Ditto the next. And at each stop, he meant it. At each stop, he high-fived someone, shook someone's hand, hugged people like they were long-lost friends whose names he couldn't quite remember but whose faces were intimately familiar. It wasn't an act, either. Le is just one of those guys who has the floorman's magic — not the ability to make people think he cares about every table on his floor, every night, seven days a week, but to actually care. To really mean it, every single time.
The combination of the cooking and Le's care is what makes Pho 95 special, what elevates it above the hundred other pho shops and strip-mall Vietnamese restaurants in Denver, the dozens along this one stretch of Federal Boulevard alone. It's the food and the mood, the cuisine and the way it is presented — the hospitable vibe on the floor and the room full of smiling, happy, satisfied friends. I doubt there's ever been a person to come through the doors at Pho 95 for the first time that Le hasn't welcomed like a brother (he calls probably half the people who step in "brother," anyway). And I doubt there's ever been a person who walked out after that first time not already in love with the simple menu and the wonders it presents.
On my first time, that Saturday night, I ate fat spring rolls stuffed with vermicelli noodles, strips of sliced pork, lettuce and pink shrimp. They'd been assembled to order, so lacked the bland iciness of pre-made rolls served out of some ready-cooler back in the kitchen. They tasted of shrimp and pork and pepper and noodles rather than only of refrigerated air. And of the peanut sauce that I dipped them in.
I wasn't even finished with the first one when my pho arrived — a plate with a tangled jungle of damp basil still on the stem, sawgrass and jalapeños, bean sprouts and quartered limes, chased by a small bowl of the house special tenderloin and brisket so fresh that the poaching meat was still pink, having not yet finished cooking in the broth. And that broth — which Le learned to cook from his mother, a family recipe going back to their days in Bien Hoa, carried like luggage across mountains and oceans to Denver — was amazing, deep and rich and savory, not heavy on the sweeter aromatics (the cinnamon and anise), but dark and meaty and spiked with the astringent hit of razor-thin white onions. It had that all-too-rare perfect balance of meat to noodles and noodles to broth, and the flavor was so subtle that it made me want to chase it all the way to the bottom of the bowl.
I would later experiment with the crispy Vietnamese egg rolls and the fried shrimp with vegetables, bracing them with cold Cokes from the can; with the non-special pho bo vien (the meatballs squeaked on the teeth) and pho tai gan (generally my favorite preparation, with flank steak and tendon, which I could eat every day at Pho 95). Le started recognizing me at the door, following me to the register when I was done just to make sure I'd liked everything, that I'd gotten enough to eat, to ask whether or not I wanted something wrapped up to go. But no matter how many times I go back to Pho 95 (a name that I finally learned referred to the year that Le and his family made it to the United States: 1995), I will always recall my first time most powerfully — that weird moment of quiet concentration, of everyone in the overcrowded restaurant pausing together to watch gymnastics, of all things, and Le, standing off to the side, watching his customers, waiting to see when the spell would break.
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