If you think about it, if you sincerely enjoy a certain restaurant and think that they offer the best (insert dish here), you can probably expect a pretty good recommendation if you ask the chef where he/she would eat out for that particular dish when they didn’t feel like making it themselves.
This is exactly what I did (almost) with my favorite local pho joint here in Ogden: Van Loi. Nate is the son of the owner, and one day, when I was at his parent’s restaurant studying for a physics test and having just finished a bowl of extremely delicious pho (pronounced “fuh” not “foe,” just don’t start the next word with a ‘k’), I asked him, “So when you can’t get your mom’s pho, where is the best place to go?” He didn’t even flinch before naming Pho Tay Ho.
He described it as a little house with really good broth. That’s what it’s all about.
It took a bit of convincing, but eventually, we decided to track it down whilst in the area. We almost missed it, the small converted bungalow.
When we finally walked in and closed the door, we ran into the cash register. There isn’t much clearance. Behind the register stood a snotty little Asian-American teenage girl who I took to be the reluctant daughter of the owner who was helping out or being forced to help out by her mother or grandmother. She sat us down, gave us menus, and left. She returned in 15 seconds with pencil and pad at face level and asked for our order. After looking at the simple menu, I realized that many of the customers probably already know what they want when they come in, hence the hasty order prompting. Therefore, I decided that it would probably be a good idea to alert our color-contact wearing friend that it was our first time. At this she perked right up. I couldn’t tell if she was actually being sincere about her enthusiasm but decided to go along with it. I asked her a few questions about menu items and told her that we needed a couple more minutes.
When she returned, I had more questions. I usually do, much to my wife’s chagrin. I asked her about a couple of the beverages including their lemonade, which came in several varieties. However, it was the salty option that peaked my interest. She described it as an acquired taste. Whenever someone says this, I immediately take it as a challenge, to see if I have already “acquired” the taste. She told us that the regular lemonade tasted pretty much like sprite. At this point, I did something stupid and asked, “Is it sprite?” Without missing a beat, she gave me an extremely snide, “No, it’s not sprite.” I deserved that. She went onto explain something about how they avoid corn syrup or something, but I was too busy rethinking my idiotic statement and proceeded to order. We ended up with 2 small bowls of pho (which were described as huge, and cost $5.50), a sparkling lemonade (sprite), a salty-sparkling lemonade, and a couple of egg rolls.
The salty lemonade was extremely interesting. Chanh muoi, as its called in Vietnamese, is made with preserved limes, which is exactly what was sitting at the bottom of my glass.
It was an acquired taste, but luckily not that bad. It was definitely salty, but sweet at the same time. The best part: it was unlike anything I’d tried before. I value that in food now. Just the mere fact that I was able to experience something new gives me pleasure and probably helped trick my mind into thinking it tasted decent. The regular sparkling lemonade, sure enough, tasted like sprite, but not quite as sweet.
The egg rolls were ok, but we’ve skipped the appetizers during subsequent visits, which is, I think, what most people do. The main event is the pho, and for good reason.
The pho was awesome. The “small” bowls were big and there was plenty of noodles and meat. The broth was a little more straightforward tasting than what I was used to at Van Loi, not as many other nuanced flavors. But the flavor that it did have was deep, beefy, and very well seasoned. No need for the hoisin sauce.
I ordered tendon, rare rib eye steak (that arrived rare as you can see in the photo, but soon was cooked in the steaming hot broth), and brisket. The tendon was interesting and I didn’t mind it, but I’m pretty sure that many other people would be put off by the texture; Slightly chewy, slippery but firm. Not really what we’re used to. We American’s love our crunch. The steak and brisket were great. It’s difficult to describe the individual flavors of the components that go into a bowl of pho. It’s the whole package that keeps me coming back time and time again. I crave its nose-running, beefy, rich, cold-curing goodness.
I add in crispy bean sprouts, licorice-flavored Thai basil, freshly sliced jalapenos, and a squirt or two of lime (not too much or it becomes bitter). I taste the broth to see if the seasoning needs to be corrected, like I would actually know.
A little chili oil, a lot if I’m feeling particularly masochistic. I have to be careful at this point. As much as I’m tempted to ladle in spoonfuls of the deep, golden-red oil, flecked with dried chili flakes, I know that a little goes a long way. And once it hits the broth, there’s no turning back. I made my bowl of pho, and now I have to
sleep in it eat it.
Slurping is encouraged. I was once told that the length of your life depends upon the length of the noodle you are able to slurp down. Sucking in air while slurping in noodles is the key to eating the whole noodle and not cutting it in half with your teeth because you can’t take the heat. It also cools the broth somewhat so that you can actually enjoy the rest of the bowl instead of torching your taste buds and negating the entire experience. And since so much of our taste comes from smell, sucking in air as you eat, however noisily, helps you breathe in the wonderful aromatics of the herbs and broth. You’re cool if you slurp during almost any Asian noodle dish.
I plan out the bowl with care, taking heed not to eat one of something too fast, especially the noodles. Armed with long chopsticks in my right hand, soupspoon in my left, I begin. The jalapeno slices go particularly well coupled with a mouthful of noodles and steak. But in the end, it’s all about the broth.
The rest of the experience was bliss, even down to the last chili flake-filled gulp.