So Pho, So Good
What's that?" asks the young Vietnamese guy sitting at the table across from mine. He brings his hands together, palms touching, then opens them -- miming the book I have in one hand.
I raise it up off the table and show him the cover -- it's my well-thumbed copy of Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour, with a wine stain on the front and pages beginning to curl -- and the guy nods, smiling. "I've read it," he says, then grimaces, raises an imaginary rifle to his shoulder and makes childish machine-gun noises. "Phnom Penh."
"The Gun Club, yeah," I say. "That was great." We're talking about the scene in which Tough Guy Tony visits a restaurant where the menu is made up primarily of guns and ammunition and customers are encouraged to drink heavily, then blow some shit away on the attached firing range. It's one of the more memorable moments in the book -- not my favorite, but a good one. Somewhere in the great wide world, Bourdain's ears must be burning to hear a Vietnamese cook and a pasty-white restaurant critic all the way out here in Denver, Colorado, sitting over steaming bowls of pho tai gan, discussing his book.
We talk a little more. The cook's English is broken, but not badly; it's certainly better than my non-existent Vietnamese. He asks if I come to Pho 79 often, and I say not as much as I'd like, which is the truth. Given the chance, I'd be here all the time.
He says he comes here a lot. He knows someone -- either in the kitchen or on the floor, I can't be sure. "Best pho," he says, tapping the table. Then he asks if I've ever been to Vietnam.
I haven't, and say so. "Not yet, anyway," I add. "But someday."
I certainly want to go. I want to eat the entire country, from the delta to the highlands and back. I want to slouch around Saigon in a cowboy hat, having three dinners a day and getting into trouble. That's why I'm reading Bourdain's book again, I explain. Rereading it for maybe the tenth time. About half of it takes place in Vietnam, and that half is almost all about eating.
So the cook and book lover at the table across from mine insists that I go to Vietnam, and before I do, he says, I should talk to him again. He has family in the city (what city isn't exactly clear), and they'd be happy to show me around.
It's an offer that I, as a suspicious American city boy born and bred to doubt every motive of my fellow man, would find strange if not for the fact that I've gotten a dozen such offers from near-total strangers in Vietnamese restaurants, bars and cafes over the years. So I bob my head and say thank you, I will do just that, and shake his hand when he gets up to leave. As he threads his way through the crowd up to the counter to pay, I realize I never got his name, much less the name of the restaurant where he cooks.
During lunch at the Pho 79 in Aurora's weird little Korean-Viet-Thai neighborhood along Havana Street (my favorite of Pho 79's three locations), the flat, plan dining room is full almost to capacity with a mob acting more like friendly parishioners at a church social than a bunch of strangers grabbing lunch. Mute TVs hanging in the corners play news and soap operas; Asian pop music comes squealing out of the boombox set on the counter below the statue of the Virgin Mary and the little plastic bottle of holy water kept, I assume, in case of vampire invasion. The building -- low and bunkerish, with just a couple of small windows and prints of Saigon at night hung on the walls -- is an echo chamber, conversations bouncing and mingling in the warm, still air, most of them in quick, chattering Vietnamese punctuated by bright spikes of directionless laughter. It sounds like cats talking -- all T's and K's and long, drawn-out vowels. The crowd is a mutt mix of neighborhood families, couples making googly eyes at each other over tall glasses of boba tea, employees from the car wash next door, grandparents and children, all arranged into singles, deuces, four-tops, eight-tops and more. Kids run dodging through the maze of legs and tables, playing tag and getting in the way of the waiters who move like dancers, balancing huge trays of bowls and bottles and condiments on their shoulders.
They're good, these waiters, and despite the full house, they're quick. They don't even stop to make fun of the two white kids seated near the front door who are trying to eat pho with a chopstick in each hand, stabbing randomly into their bowls and hoping for the best. They speak serviceable English, too, although since the kitchen serves nothing but pho -- slow-simmered beef broth and noodles with a selection of cow parts all sliced and diced and boiled into the mix -- and the menu is arranged by number, pointing and smiling is generally enough to get your order across.
I check my watch and turn back to my book and my lunch. Today, it's pho tai gan, with thin-sliced rare steak and chewy white bits of tendon that aren't nearly as nasty as they might sound to an American palate. In fact, stewing coaxes deep, smooth flavors not unlike marrow out of the sliced tendon. Yesterday, it was pho nam -- rare rib-eye and well-done flank shot through with yellow streaks of fat in a lighter broth, beefy but with more pronounced top notes of green and white onion, basil and salt.
The back of the restaurant, where I'm sitting, is nominally the smoking section. I light one up, angle my chair so I can tip it back against the white wall, and sip carefully at my glass of soda chanh muoi, trying to look cool and composed, even though I'm not; trying hard not to look like I'm choking, which I kind of am. The drink is a salty, carbonated lemon juice that tastes rather like a terrible experiment in beverage fusion, like sucking a lemon with a bloody lip, like a drink you might get from a little kid at a street corner lemonade stand if the little kid were going to grow up to be a poisoner, which you'd drink with a smile because you don't want to make him feel bad, then overpay for in the vain hope that he'll close up shop before inflicting his creation on anyone else. It is, as they say, an acquired taste -- popular in the wet heat of Vietnam, like durian and jackfruit and lychee, all of which are also available here -- but one that I find I'm in no hurry to acquire.
I could never get tired of pho, though, if for no other reason than the mad-scientist quality of its presentation. Every order brings a plate of condiments -- lime quarters and sliced jalapeños, bean sprouts, stalks of jade-green basil leaves so fresh that some are still flowering -- and every table is set with soy sauce, squeeze bottles of thick brown gunk kind of like hoisin but kind of not like hoisin, too, and the huge bottles of Sriracha red-pepper paste ubiquitous at any Vietnamese restaurant. With these, you can tinker and adjust the flavors to your heart's content, never having the same bowl of pho twice. If you were to learn only one word of Vietnamese -- thêm, meaning "extra," meaning "more," as in thêm sach (more tripe)or thêm banh pho (more noodles) -- you could make sure that you always get exactly how much you want of whatever you want.
This "have it your way" style of eating would make pho the Vietnamese equivalent of fast food, the McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Cow Belly of the Asian world. Only at lunch here, no meal is fast, because no one's in a hurry. Customers come in, spot friends or neighbors, and their faces light up in big smiles. Tables are pushed together, split apart, rounds of soup are distributed, then eaten, then taken away -- and the crowds never seem to stop coming.
At night, this Pho 79 is busy right up until closing time, the crowd almost entirely Asian, a mix of young Vietnamese hard boys and older groups of men and women. The cigarette smoke is denser, as is the pho -- the broth stronger, richer in flavor. People with other places to be are now eating fast, tossing money around, knocking back glasses of thick, bitter Vietnamese espresso like it was nothing, even though to me -- a dedicated coffee drinker with a monster habit -- the stuff hits my system like moonshine. I've ordered tai nam gau gan sach -- pho with everything from flank steak to bible tripe -- and could get lost in all the competing flavors mixing and swirling together in the bowl. I chase it with white coffee and cam vat, fresh-squeezed OJ. Like everyone else, I eat with both hands -- sticks on the right, pho spoon on the left -- with my head down, and quickly. I'm in no hurry, but the Saturday-night frenzy is infectious.
Sunday morning's mood is the opposite. The place is again crammed tight with people coming from church, coming for breakfast, coming with their entire extended families in tow. I arrive early to beat the rush of church-goers and late sleepers, settle in at a table near the door and order ca phe sua da -- Vietnamese coffee dripped slow over sweetened condensed milk, then mixed up and iced -- and a classic pho bo vien with stiff little meatballs that squeak against my teeth. My waiter warns me in advance that the coffee is strong, very strong, and he says it with a raised eyebrow, like maybe I'm going to reconsider.
"Good," I tell him. "I hope it is."
Through the door to the back, I see dozens, maybe a hundred, short coffee glasses lined up on a prep table, each one already dosed with a tall shot of condensed milk and topped with a tin drip filter. The waiters are ready for battle this morning, and the cooks have no doubt been in the kitchen since dawn prepping for the day's service, which began at 9 a.m., about an hour ago.
The morning pho is different from both the midday pho and the late-night pho. The broth is younger, more sharp-edged, less subtle and less strong at the same time -- a Beaujolais Nouveau of a broth, rough and unmellowed by age. I tinker, adding lime, adding Sriracha, tucking a twist of basil into the bottom of the bowl beneath the nest of noodles so that it will steep like tea, adding a green edge of flavor to my breakfast soup. As I eat, I stare at the slow drip of my coffee, waiting for it to be done. Waiting, waiting and waiting.
I've found that if your coffee and your pho arrive at exactly the same time, the drip process will be complete just as you spot the bottom of your bowl. It's a game of patience waiting for the coffee to finish, an exercise in Zen calm. So I sit and I wait and I watch, picking at my breakfast with my chopsticks, slurping noodles and drinking broth out of the curved plastic pho spoon. The air is perfumed with the scent of strong coffee and onions, underlaid with the darker, heavier odor of cooking stock and beef tripe.
I relax into the embrace of foreign smells and foreign tongues all around me, chase the bobbing meatballs around my bowl, watching the people come and go. The coffee takes its time, but it's Sunday morning, and I've got nowhere else to be.
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