There are some restaurants where the world does not intrude -- rooms where time does not pass, weather does not change, current events go unnoted. Often inadvertently, these restaurants have successfully stopped time -- a trick that mad scientists and evil super-geniuses have been attempting since forever with dark matter and black holes and atomic-energy-mo-trons, but that here is accomplished with nothing more than an old-school egg roll and a total disregard for advances in the field of interior decorating.
On the East Coast, some restaurants exist in accidental celebration of eras and epochs best forgotten. In New York City, there are delis that haven't seen a full house since the last big transit strike, with owners who scan the papers and stare out the grimy front windows hoping for union troubles or a nearby bus crash. In Philly, there are menus that haven't been updated one iota since powdered wigs, topcoats and gout stools were required in the dining room. In Rochester, there's a sushi joint that absolutely refuses to get on the fresh-seafood bandwagon, preferring to make everything from local, fake or frozen product, the way it was done back in the bad old days; it may be the only place on the planet where you can get lake-trout hand rolls and pike sashimi.
I knew (and loved) a knock-off Chinese tiki-bar restaurant in Albuquerque precisely because it seemed like no one who worked there had been allowed outside since the early '60s. To them, Kennedy was still president, the Beatles were just a bunch of longhairs who wanted to hold your hand, and the streets were full of sexy Vettes and pre-Fastback Mustangs. I imagined that they were merely bemused by the changing styles of dress affected by the slow trickle of diners who wandered in and out. And when whole days and nights went by without a single customer, I pictured the lot of them -- cooks and waitresses, the house band, managers in dusty tuxedos with frilled shirts, bartenders wearing arm garters -- sitting down and discussing, in hushed tones, whether the big trend of Polynesian cocktails and Don Ho covers was finally coming to an end.
This was one of my favorite restaurants in the entire city, a spot where time hadn't just been held up like a box of fruit in Customs, but flat-out stopped. No matter what was going on in the world, the dining experience never, ever changed. The place was open on Christmas -- without tree, wreaths and Santa hats to muss the bowl-cuts of the cadre of ancient waitresses. During a city-crippling snowstorm, the band kept grinding away at its extended, 28-minute version of "Girl From Ipanema," and the bartender continued to touch every drink he could with a blue crown of alcohol fire. A few days after 9/11, Laura and I ate here in a weird commemoration, a return to normalcy in a place that we knew would somehow feel totally unaffected by recent events. And we were right. The band was playing, the waves lapping quietly against their artificial island in the middle of their artificial lake in the middle of the completely artificial Hawaii-meets-China dining room with the outrigger canoe hanging from the ceiling and the torches guttering in the cross-breeze. The service was as glacially slow as ever, but the Mai-Tais and Suffering Bastards were still strong enough to strip paint. I heard someone at the bar wondering aloud what the president was going to do about this problem; I'm pretty sure he was talking about JFK and Russian missiles in Cuba.
I love these time-stands-still places the way other people do museums or opera or television shows about dinosaurs. They offer diversion, escape on the cheap for the cost of an umbrella drink and a bowl of subgum wonton soup. But I also cherish them, never wanting to return so frequently that I become a regular or even a remembered face. I dole out my meals in these restaurants like special, private holidays from the real world -- often eating there on actual holidays that go completely unrecognized inside the dining room.
That's how Laura and I ended up (again) at Pho Saigon two weeks ago, desperate for a place to hide out from Santa's elves and to escape the snow that had otherwise provided me with so much entertainment as I watched panicked last-minute shoppers and the forever unprepared ram their cars into each other in the intersection just below my patio. I wanted a place where the holidays, all of them, would pass unnoticed, where the snow remained outside where it belonged, and nothing -- no date, no event, no disaster -- would be acknowledged.
Also, I wanted soup, and that's a Pho Saigon specialty. In particular, I wanted shrimp pho -- a rarity at most of the traditional Vietnamese pho shops on Federal and Alameda, where soup made of tendons and blood and cow stomach is just fine, but even a chicken stock is looked on with some suspicion. And while Pho Saigon's shrimp pho rated the very last slot at the bottom of the seventeen-variation pho board, right below chicken and simple pho bo vien, it was there, which was enough for me.
Or so I thought, until -- after a few big spoonfuls of broth and the messy devouring of two of the little pink critters from atop their nest of noodles in my bowl -- Laura asked, "Hey, how long do you think it's been since this place got a delivery?"
As it turned out, Pho Saigon never missed a day's business during the blizzard. The deliveries kept coming, and purchasing went on as normal. Come to find out, the blissful disregard of such mortal concerns as snowstorms and Christmas that I prize so much at these restaurants extends far beyond the dining rooms and kitchens and out to the people who supply them as well. Christmas week, the trucks kept rolling and the Asian markets didn't close. As a result, my bowl was filled with beautiful, fresh, almost sweet shrimp; chile and basil on the stem so lush and green that they almost seemed to glow; and bean sprouts as crisp as the day they were clipped or dug up or harvested, or whatever you do to get really fresh bean sprouts. It was a wonderful soup, even if I immediately screwed with the mild, blond and subtle broth by adding fish sauce and Sriracha.
Although the house was missing a few little things -- sugarcane for the sugarcane shrimp wraps, something required for the construction of the shredded-pork appetizer -- the kitchen had fresh mango, beautiful slabs of crisp cucumber, fresh eggs, pork pâté and that lovely basil. Inside the dining room, it might as well have been summer, it might as well have been Vietnam, even if outside it was actually Centennial and the snowdrifts in the strip-mall parking lot rose past my shoulders.
Pho Saigon's menu stretches well beyond pho, featuring all the greatest hits of bun, com and boba and including peasant-simple rice platters that are just pork, beef, chicken or the occasional pork chop or shrimp, given a quick drag across the grill, sometimes topped with an egg, and laid in a big, steaming mound next to mountains of sticky short-grain rice. We'd tried most of these dishes and liked them all, but on this night I went with the pho, while Laura ate marinated strips of beef and small, tender bits of pork filigreed with grill scars and sliced thin as pork Steak-Ums. We also cleared a plate of Vietnamese egg rolls, the crisp rice-paper wrappers filled with steaming-hot, rich pork paste, a few glass noodles and spices redolent of street markets. Then we drank drip-filtered Vietnamese coffee and joked about the dessert menu -- wondering what ordering the "three colors" would bring us, what might be included in the Thai combo. Dope, noodles, hand job from a ladyboy, case of the crabs...
The floor staff -- all quick to a fault, friendly, accommodating within the bounds of the Venn diagram of languages spoken here -- brought out the dishes in flights, whenever the food hit the rail in the kitchen, adding bowls and plates and sauces and sides seemingly at random and offering fresh utensils in accordance with some system known only to them. As at the best pho shops, all of the silverware -- the chopsticks, the plastic soup spoons and cheap knives -- comes in crinkly paper sleeves. And also as at the best pho shops, the space itself -- just a box with some tables -- is almost as disposable and forgettable, but for the food that fills the place and the crowd it draws. Pho Saigon has been open for business for almost three years now, pioneering in a location not necessarily known for its authentic Southeast Asian cuisine, but successfully pausing time.
On Christmas Eve we joined a mixed bag of Vietnamese families, white families, Mexican families and solo diners huddled around warming bowls of broth with their eyes closed, breathing deeply, hoping to be transported to sunnier latitudes or perhaps just thawing out from shoveling. On regular days -- days that are regular in the outside world, at least -- the lunch business is mostly local, as people come from the surrounding strip malls and office parks during their thirty minutes away from whatever. But dinner is a destination draw, with big groups lingering over their pho and kids looping around the tables.
By nine, Pho Saigon spills light out into a parking lot that's empty except for the cars of its own customers; everyone from the toy store on one side and the spa-and-fireplace-supply store on the other has already gone home. Inside, though, everyone's still in Vietnam, eating comfort food for the geographically challenged, Southeast Asian street food as yet uncorrupted by the rising tide of McNuggets and fries that already covers much of the world. Here, time does not move and place does not matter. The food is the perfect retreat from everything but tripe, shrimp, rice, noodles and the tick of chopsticks on the bottom of a bowl. No matter the weather, no matter the day, there's soup waiting.
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