Anyways, I had gotten into the topic of food with Chi and she told me she is a huge foodie! So of course I asked all about Vietnamese cuisine, a cuisine I honestly don't know much about. We got to talking about Pho, a traditional Vietnamese dish basically consisting of rare beef cooked in a broth with noodles....from there you can add all sorts of things to it making it unique to you. At least, that was my understanding of it. What I mostly knew about it was that my idol, Anthony Bourdain has on several occasions mentioned that Pho is his favorite dish of all time. I just had to know why!
So Chi invited me to go along with her when she goes up to North Charleston to check out a new Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Bac. It got rave reviews for its Pho and she was anxious to find a place where she could get her home cuisine.
I was beyond excited to go, having never tried Vietnamese food, let alone trying it with a true expert on the stuff.
We got to what looked like a pretty deserted strip mall, not a good sign. The restaurant itself was badly decorated, with deep red walls with black lattis trim accented by sporadic bamboo plants in kitchy potters. Even with all this stacked against this place there were quite a few people getting their Pho fix in this small restaurant, most of them Vietnamese. Always a good sign. If local Vietnamese eat here, its good enough for me.
The menu comes, simple, laminated, in Vietnamese with English translation (also a good sign). When I was in Italy I learned that any menu that had Italian first and English second was usually just okay. Here, facing a menu in all Vietnamese would probably scare me off, so I was thankful for the descriptions of each dish. I mean, who knows what you could end up ordering in a restaurant like that.....dog anyone?
Chi told me to definitely get the Pho, but suggested the all beef one for me while she herself was going to get the House Special that came with meatballs, tendon, tripe, and beef. I guess she thought my delicate white girl stomach wouldn't be interested in what the real Vietnamese eat. She was wrong. We ordered the same thing and she was pretty impressed with my daring.
To start, Chi ordered a jack fruit bubble tea. It was more like a milkshake, sweet and thick and perfect for the hot day outside. I had never had jack fruit before and it was surprisingly mild and sweet with a hint of acidity, sort of like a mango mixed with an orange.
Then the main event arrived. Two huge steaming vats of indistinguishably brown liquid, topped with long strips of rare beef, green onion floating on top like mini life preservers. This thing was huge! I mean, serves two people huge. Put you to bed huge.
Hidden below the depths was a nest of delicate rice noodles, swimming amongst the broth, stomach lining, tendons, and believe it or not, meatballs. Relatively bland at the start, the waitress brought us a plate of goodies: Add-ins to spice up, tang-out, flavor up your dish. Basil, lime wedges, bean sprouts and jalapenos beckoned and Chi and I left no man behind. After we added our flavor boosters, we took to those bowls with generous squirts of Sirriacha, turning the mild-mannered brown liquid into a spicy amber hell-broth. This was like a religious experience. The dish is served naked almost, giving the eater the chance to really pay their respects to it by dousing their broth and noodles in spice, salt, flavor, and more spice. Making this one of the most interactive eating experiences I've had.
Chi wasted no time, digging into her bowl like a pro, teaching me the dance of spoon and chop-stick. Both are needed to attack this beast and I fumbled around with both until I finally got the hang of it. For such a small woman, Chi took down that bowl of goodness like a starving street baby. Finished well before I was.
I finally finished my bowl, almost sad that it was all over. My favorite part of the whole dish had to be those meatballs. So completely different from Italian style meatballs that I am so familiar with. These were denser, like solid hockey puck when frozen kind of dense. I can't pinpoint the flavors in them, but I'm pretty sure they were pork....then again, maybe the greatness of them is that they were so foreign to me. Maybe I don't want to know what's in those magical meatballs.
Some things are just best when left to the experts.