Just Say Pho

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It's Saturday night and it's raining -- long, vicious sheets of water not just falling, but slapping the ground as if the pavement had said something nasty about the rain cloud's mother. I'd made the dash from my car to the door in a scuttling hunch -- the way you see people on the Weather Channel fleeing a hurricane -- and then collapsed at one of the two tables by the window. I'd tried to protect my book, a compendium of Douglas Adams novels, under my raincoat, one of those models that are shown in catalogues withstanding a force-three North Atlantic gale, but that actually can't survive even a JC Penney perfume spritz without going as limp and useless as a brown paper bag. So now I sit, steaming, under the buzzing neon pho bowl and the glowing red-and-blue "OPEN" sign in the window. I am the only customer -- round-eyed or otherwise -- stupid enough to come out in this weather.

I need a minute to collect myself, and the waiter, seeing this, raises his hands and backs off, laughing quietly while I sit there, out of breath and pushing wet hair out of my face. I pull napkins out of the dispenser, scrub my face, mush more napkins between the sodden pages of my book. I take off my useless raincoat (which I'd bought precisely, if unwisely, for moments like this -- for sitting in the window seat of an Asian noodle house while the rain falls outside like Deckard in the opening scene of Blade Runner) and hang it over the back of my chair. I stand, ball up the napkins and throw them into the busboy's cart, which sits in the narrow passageway by the shared kitchen that connects Pho 2000 with the restaurant next door.

"Ready?" the waiter asks.


Pho 2000

3150 South Peoria Street, Aurora
Hour s: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Vietnamese coffee: $1.95
Boba tea: $3.25
Coke, in the can: $.95 Summer rolls: $2.95
Pho bo vien: $4.95/$5.50
Pho seafood: $6.50
Super Bowl: $5.95/$6.95

"Yes, I think so."

He follows me back to my table. The rain smacks against the window. We both look outside, but the world beyond Pho 2000 is just blackness. The dining room is a womb of light, the bare fluorescents hung high on the vaulted ceiling making it look more like a surgical suite than a restaurant. The walls are white and spotless. The ceiling is white. The chairs are white. Any color -- the muted, scrubbed, pastel tile on the floor, the pale bluish-gray of the tabletops -- is washed in whiteness and seems to glow with a live electric haze. The gleam of the neon tints it, the colorful bottles on each table punctuate it, but the white is overpowering. It is titanium, fresh snow, winter lightning. It gets under your skin, makes you glow like radiation.

And outside is nothing but the pitch of distant fury. I can't see the sidewalk, the parking lot or Parker Road beyond. The world could end while I sit here, and I wouldn't know it until I stepped back out into the smoking ruin.

Which is just fine by me, of course, and one of the reasons I love this place so much. Walking in is like going elsewhere. Walking out, the anarchic fourteen-year-old inside me always secretly hopes to step into a different world, one undeniably changed while I was busy eating. And every time it isn't, my inner Nihilist says, Well, maybe next time.

I turn back to the waiter, order Vietnamese coffee, Coke in the can, pho bo vien and summer rolls. (Pho 2000 also offers spring and egg rolls.) He writes, nods. "One minute," he says -- which sounds terribly optimistic, even if I am his only customer -- and retreats.

Here's an SAT-style question: Haute French cuisine is to British as Japanese kaiseki-ryori is to blank. Give up? It's Vietnamese -- specifically, pho -- a cuisine about as diametrically opposed to the formality of Japanese as you can get. People study tea kaiseki for years, learning how to form the rice and walk through the door and serve the natto and make the tea, trying to master it the way others study edo sushi techniques or origami. Pho, in comparison, is the ultimate do-it-yourself Asian cuisine. It is big where Japanese is little, expansive where Japanese is precious. And like Brit cooking (which, until recently, has been more concerned with practicality and utility than, say, taste), it is peasant food, lacking any pretension, based on frugality and the whole-food ethos that demands the use of any possible edible bit of everything used in its making. That means flank and round as well as loin, bone and marrow, tendon, tail and tripe -- everything.

Pho broth is slow-cooked, simmered and reduced simple stock kicked up with onions boiled until translucent, green onion stalks and spices. There's always salt, but never pepper. I've tasted star anise and cinnamon before, and lemongrass and soy. Pho broth is never the same from one place to the next, or even from one day to the next at the same place. Every minute the broth sits on the stove changes its character in small ways. Every minute it sits before you, cooling as you eat, changes it. The soup at the top of the bowl will taste different from the soup at the bottom. Along with the broth come noodles, of course -- a softened nest of them is laid in the bowl before the broth is poured over the top. That changes the pho's temperament. So do all the other ingredients, including proteins in wondrous, sometimes frightening variety, and the sides upon sides upon sides.

My coffee arrives, tin drip filter perched like some shiny Hugo Gernsback UFO on top of the white mug filled with sweetened condensed milk; it's accompanied by a glass of ice and a straw. The coffee will take five minutes or more to finish dripping through the grounds, and I will wait, patiently, because waiting is meditative. And also because the wait is worth it: Vietnamese coffee is right up there alongside foie gras, the first cigarette of the morning and lazy Saturday-afternoon sex as one of the greatest pleasures on earth.

The Coke, ice cold, follows the coffee. I don't know why, but Coke (not Pepsi) in the can (not a glass, not from the fountain) is the perfect accompaniment to pho -- maybe because of the chill, the carbonation, the caramelly sweetness. Pho 2000 also serves boba tea -- that fruity, milky stuff with the little tapioca balls -- and while some people swear by it, to me boba tea tastes like watery, iced Jell-O with mini-marshmallows.

I read my book while Asian pop music bubbles out of hidden speakers and the storm expends its rage against the glass. A little girl wearing a green apron sits at the table in front of mine. She's playing with a deck of cards, dealing out a hand of six-year-old's solitaire with rules that only she understands. Another kid -- a little boy -- tromps resolutely up and down the stairs that lead to an unused mezzanine, white on white on white. He's humming a tune that has nothing to do with what's on the radio and trying to stay out of the way of a busboy who rushes from table to table madly polishing away non-existent spots.

Pho 2000 came to Colorado six months ago from Vietnam, by way of California. The original restaurant is in Saigon City (former president Bill Clinton paid it a visit), and the chain now has a half-dozen outposts in the Asian sections of Los Angeles, Tacoma and Denver. But this is no American chain, full of cookie-cutter food off of cookie-cutter menus handed down by Pho 2000 Corporate HQ. First, there is no HQ, just Huynh Trung Tan, a Viet kieu (Vietnamese emigré) businessman who returned to Ho Chi Minh City in the late '80s to set up an upscale Viet-French eatery, then later a chain of pho shops loosely modeled after Starbucks -- quick, clean, trendy and everywhere. But with Pho 2000, each location is given the freedom to reinvent itself in a way that fits the surrounding community, and each kitchen operates independently. The Western Avenue spot in L.A. -- Pho 2000's first American toehold -- is still a neighborhood joint. The Wilshire Boulevard location is more urbane and attracts an upscale lunch crowd. Here in Denver, Pho 2000 exists in a liminal area between the Asian neighborhoods along Iliff and the yuppie tract development of East Aurora, catering to both, disappointing neither.

My sides start appearing. A plate of shrimp crackers, all powdery pink and blue and orange and looking more like pieces of some bizarre children's toy than food. Next, the summer rolls -- halved shrimp, shredded lettuce, dried flakes of onion and soft, thin noodles wrapped in chewy, sticky rice paper -- with a sweet peanut sauce for dipping and broad leaves of damp romaine lettuce for wrapping. A tiny bowl of chopped cilantro follows, then a plate piled with mung-bean sprouts, mint leaves on the stem, whole stalks of mild purple basil, bright green slices of jalapeño and quarters of lime. Already on the table are salt and pepper, a shaker of cayenne, two kinds of hoisin sauce, a bottle of soy sauce, white vinegar, dark vinegar, a honey pot of red-pepper paste that's murderously hot, and a squeeze bottle of Sriracha, which is what the Devil uses on his hot wings. There are disposable chopsticks, plastic pho spoons sketched with flowers -- a whole kitchen's worth of spices, herbs, sauces and implements, all to help customize the pho that arrives in a huge bowl, filled to the brim. Pho is all about generosity, about more than you expected and more than you could ever need. I set Douglas Adams aside and begin the tinkering process.

Pho 2000 offers nine kinds of pho, each requiring a different touch of this or that to be made perfect. The seafood pho, its pale broth studded with shrimp, fish balls and fat, rubbery chunks of squid, needs lime -- two squeezes -- as well as a little mint rolled between the fingers to release its flavor, mung beans for texture and maybe a dollop of sweet hoisin. The Super Bowl, on the other hand, is so packed with competing flavors and textures -- all the seafood, plus slivered tripe like tiny little octopi with stubbly arms of muscle; tough ingots of brisket; meatballs; thin-sliced raw steak; and a gooey, gelatinous slab of tendon that melts as soon as it touches the hot broth -- that it needs nothing but some basil leaves dropped in whole.

But tonight I have the pho bo vien -- the broth with meatballs -- which is one of the simplest, most subtle bowls on the board. I tear up basil, add some cilantro, a squirt of Sriracha, two drops of soy and stir. It's not quite there, so I add some whole basil and let the pho steep, then give it just the barest squeeze of lime. With good pho, you can smell when it comes together. A fragrant steam rises off the bowl, heady with kitchen spice plus all that I've added. I lower my head, close my eyes and taste.

Outside, the storm seethes. It rattles against the black panes and the buzzing neon, and I think maybe the world will end tonight, but probably not.

Probably, I will just end up with a soft peppermint or almond cookie to send me on my way, then drive home in the rain.

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