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.
Ha Noi Pho
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 8:30 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
Cha gio: $2.95
Banh canh cua: $6.95
Bun bo Hue: $6.95
"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.
And it all tastes good. I'd had duck's blood before, had used it in my own kitchens, but until I came to Ha Noi Pho, I'd never cared for it beyond its capacity to mount a voluptuously glossy sauce. Here the blood is one of the main points of dinner, and I spear a small, dark triangle of the stuff the minute my bowl of shrimp and field crab and weird-thing-that-looks-like-a-boiled-penis soup (banh canh cua, number 38 on the regular menu) arrives. The thick duck's blood tastes gamey, salty (of course), slightly sweet. It tastes (somewhat obviously) of life, condensed. And as it rests in my mouth, for a moment I understand what it is that gets vampires so worked up.
The fried cha gio shrimp-and-pork egg rolls with lacy carrot and black shreds of mushroom are always murky and vile — good for about three bites, then awful and regrettable forever after — and I've had better pho ga (Vietnamese chicken soup) almost everywhere I've been dull enough to order it. But I've also had great beef pho here: pho tai sach with tender tripe and raw, shaved steak poached in broth with noodles and basil and a squeeze of lime, pho chin with brisket, bo vien with squeaky little meatballs. If I ever get to eat breakfast here, it will probably be pho — because in Vietnam, pho translates as breakfast, as well as lunch, dinner and late-night snack. Pho is hangover cure and comfort, party food and family food, and an all-day answer for "What's to eat?"
But there's much more than pho at Ha Noi Pho. The bun bo Hue (Hue-style noodle soup with an iridescent slick of oil on the top) is singularly amazing, with a flavor like drinking fire. And the combination vermicelli plates (all of which have literalist Vietnamese names too long to bother reproducing) are like mini-buffets stocked with everything that makes foodies go nuts for Southeast Asian cuisines: fresh, dewy vegetables; mounds of pure white noodles; fragrant fish sauce speckled with chile flakes; perfectly charred prawns curled like fat commas on the plate; and beautiful, fatty, spit-grilled pork served either as succulent knots of flesh about the size of a baby's fist or (and I love this) julienned in a perfect imitation of the technique of the French chefs who are the only people in thousands of years of history to have conquered the Vietnamese people completely.
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I've spent nights here beside the long mirrors, slurping noodles, talking with the staff (trying to, anyway) and sending Phuoc scrambling into the back to quiz his cooks about this ingredient, that preparation. Once, I'm pretty sure he called Vietnam when he couldn't answer one of my questions himself — and this is a man who went all kinds of bamboo preparing to open his place: going back to the old country, researching proper flavors, proper technique.
On slow nights, most of the staff will sit clustered around a table near the front, watching the TVs hung from the ceiling or playing cards, and the whole restaurant takes on the cast of a private social club for small, wiry Asian line cooks and waitresses. Still, the best meals I've had here were on nights when the kitchen was cooking for no one but me: smashing the crabs, slicing the congealed blood, cleaning the tripe for a single fanatic customer. And even on busier visits, when I do something weird like order two Vietnamese coffees just before midnight or squirt sriracha into my pho, the worst I ever get is a cocked eyebrow or a confused shake of the head.
One of these days, I'm going to make it to Ha Noi for breakfast. I have no idea who will be there then, what I will eat. But I know it'll be good, because almost everything at Ha Noi is. And I know it'll be genuine, because this is a kitchen that doesn't work any other way. And in the meantime, I'll keep coming back after dark — in the evenings and late on the weekends — to eat blood and drink fire, trusting in luck and the beer-only bar to keep me out of trouble.
And should you show up after midnight on a Saturday and not see me, have no fear: I'm probably just standing in the bathroom, wondering what's for breakfast.