Tuesday, March 10, 2009


By Pat Rossiter, CT YOUTH Forum Program Manager

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 Phở Mai on Main Street. Anh Dzung and I have become friends from my trips there. We catch up on the lives of his kids and he and his wife's trips back to Vietnam. I made an impression on him, being the only white guy in Middletown who can say phở properly. 

That reminds me of another reason its been on my mind. I recently watched in horror as Emeril Lagase repeatedly referred to this nectar of the gods as "Phoh." I mean, why don't you plunge the feces covered sharpened pungee stake into the ear of this US Navy trained, cunning linguists ear? Please, for the love of Troi oi! It is pronounced phuh(?) Yes, just like a question. Vietnamese is a tonal language and with out the tone it is goobledy gook.  Please practice at home...

For the first time in nearly four years, I managed to have eaten phở twice in as many weeks. I had the delightful surprise of going out to lunch with my colleague and finding Phở 88 on New Park Ave in Hartford. It too was delightful and inspired me to lots of fits and starts and slurping. 

So, if you have eaten phở before, by now you are searching for your car keys and wallet and are headed to the nearst place (where ever it is). If not, then you should seriously be thinking about doing that yourself. Before you go though, some important info. 

There are lots of varieties of phở: Bo Vien (meatball), Tai (steak), Ga (chicken). If you want to be "real" about it though, there's only one thing to order, dac biet (the special). Depending on how authentic your restaurant is, this should include Meat balls, steak, flank, tendons, tripe and maybe a few other surprises. This is the connoisseurs choice. Tendon, tripe? YES! TRY IT! It is for your own good. 

Now, once that bowl arrives, have some patience and do this right. Along with your big steaming bowl will come a plate of basil, bean sprouts, hot peppers and lime. If you are lucky, you will be eating with someone who doesn't know better and you can take it all for yourself. That's right, throw it in your bowl. I like them all and lots of them. In truth, put in what ever you like and leave out what you don't. (more for me!)

Next, there will likely be little bowls available into which you should squirt some tuong ot (Srirraca Pepper Sauce, this is HOT) and some hoisin sauce. Now take a spoon and chop sticks. If you are uncouth, from South Vietnam or very hungry, start shoveling in! If you are dainty, from the North or not so hungry, load your spoon with some sauce and some meat, noodles, etc. and gently put it in your mouth. 

My best advise is actually this. If you are unsure and need some guidance, invite me to go with you!

1 comment:

meredithjustice said...

I am the colleague mentioned in the 13th paragraph and in the lovely picture. To clarify, I AM NOT eating phoh with chopsticks, that was a sticky spring (?) roll. Pat was so focused on teaching me about phoh that he neglected to be clear about the rolled delight, which, honestly, was not as tasty as the deep fried (yay for deep frying) egg rolls we Americans are used to.
Re: phoh, Pat is correct, as he is in all things.
Wow, look at that... the word verification I must type in the box below is "promeal." I kid you not.