When I was serving in the Navy and stationed in California, I did something that I am not proud of. It all started when a classmate of mine told me about something he had been doing since his youth in southern California. As he told me about it, my reluctance showed. He proceeded to question my manhood, said disparaging things about my upbringing and eventually harangued me into do it with him.
A hour later we had made the drive north to the seedy(ier) side of San Jose. (Yes, I do know how to get there. Thank you Burt Bacharach.) We parked and walked in to a run down store front. An old Asian women sat us down under the harsh, green glare and penetrating buzz of fluorescent tubes. As we sat, she rattled off in Vietnamese. I looked up at her, and not having understood a word she said, smiled nervously and shot a pleading look at my friend. He grinned reassuringly, or perhaps with a sinister delight, and replied to the old woman, also in Vietnamese. This time, as his American accent was familiar to my ear, I made out two distinct words, "dac biet" and "xe lua." A wave of panic washed over me! Why would he have just said, "special," and "train?"
I began to protest, "Look, I don't know about this. I've never..."
He cut me off. "Hey man, relax. I've been here so many times. Trust me, you'll love it. Do it just once and you are going to be hooked. You'll be back her every chance you can."
That did not in fact reassure me in the slightest. I began to notice what was around me. There were instruments, strange and fascinating, covered in strange writing. And bottles filled with concoctions I could only imagine what they were. The others that were there, all Asian, some stared through bleary eyes and others sniggered through curled lips. The only ones that didn't were hunched over, moving in fits and starts and making horrible slurping sounds.
In a moment, a beautiful young Vietnamese girl approached us and looking at me asked in broken English if I wanted the special?
I nodded sheepishly.
She set before I and my friend two enormous bowls (the size of a "train") of the special phở. Phở, of course, being Vietnamese beef noodle soup. That day changed my life.
Phở is THE quintessential Vietnamese dish. It is eaten three meals a day by young, old, rich,
poor and everybody in between. And now, it is quickly becoming an American favorite as well.
The secret to its success? Crack, or maybe opium. Seriously, this stuff is addictive. It is so
addictive its twelve-step program has thirteen steps. I have a friend who has to go to a wonton clinic so he can get off the hard stuff. What's worse, I am like a play ground dealer in it. "The first hit's for free, kid." I have taken all my friends and now they are all hooked.
It has really been on my mind the last few weeks. I had a meeting in Middletown and managed to get to my old favorite joint called