On a recent five-hour drive to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I spent many of the hours pondering not the big philosophical questions in life, but rather the more immediate, 'what would I have for dinner?". Visiting a different city, is to me an opportunity to explore the culture through food. I craved fresh, raw oysters at Chimes, but feared they would not be carrying local oysters due to the BP oil spill. Knowing there is a large Vietnamese community in this part of the country, I instead set my sights on a bowl of pho.
I was first introduced to Vietnamese food in my early twenties when working at the University of New Hampshire. There one of my coworkers and close friends, had moved to the states from Vietnam as a small child and happened to be an amazing cook. She cooked two dishes that top my list of all-time favorites. The first is a family-style dish, a beef fondue, where each person cooks their own thinly sliced beef in a vinegar, onion and garlic broth. Then the beef is wrapped in rice paper with herbs, to resemble a fresh spring roll and dipped in a pineapple salsa type sauce. As with most of my favorite meals, it is messy; inevitably you end up with juice running down your arms, a sure sign of a delicious meal. The flavors were quintessentially Vietnamese -- the fondue broth was rich and tangy, and the basil, cilantro, and mint herbs were fresh and bright. I also love that this dinner was an event, not just a meal. There is no way to eat this fast, as you have to cook your beef to order for each roll and then build your herb salad to bed it. Ultimately, all sorts of rolling contests, teasing fights over stolen beef from the pot, and lots of laughs ensued.
The second dish that my friend Thuy cooked is a rich beef noodle soup called pho which is pronounced "Fuh-uh", with the hint of a second syllable at the very end. This dish is a little more mainstream and using my handy Urban Spoon iPhone app, I found a recommended pho house in Baton Rouge called Pho Quynh. While I love the traditional rare sliced beef version, I decided to try, the "nothing-but-the-kitchen-sink" option with tendon, tripe, brisket, beef and meatballs. Within minutes I was served a steaming bowl, which wafted the robust aromas of cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, ginger, clove, coriander and fennel seed. The broth is thought to have some French influence. The bowl was laden with rice noodles, the meats, including the still pink beef, and green onions. Alongside the bowl, came a plate with bean sprouts, lime wedges, basil, mint, cilantro, sliced jalapenos, and a sawtooth type herb called ngo gai. I loaded up my bowl with the herbs and then added some hot chili paste, fish sauce and hoisin. My friend Thuy once told me that slurping was encouraged and actually was taken as a sign that the diner enjoyed the meal, so with that in mind, I picked up my spoon in one hand and chop sticks in the other and dug in. What I love about pho is that it is both vivid and comforting at the same time. While in the future, I could live without the tripe and the meatballs, the tendon was unctuous and rich, and the rare beef was flavorful. I could barely finish the "small", as the only thing small about it was the $7.99 price tag.
My return trip the next day took me through Jackson, Mississippi and having had my first taste of Vietnamese food in over two years, I was on a mission to find more. Sure enough, Flowood, just outside of Jackson, has a pho house called Saigon Vietnamese. This time I decided to go traditional and ordered the rare beef version, which was loaded with tender, rare, meat. The broth was fabulous, and even a little oily, which made it rich and satisfying. I accidentally ordered the large, which I could not finish and it ran me a whopping $7.00.
I rationalized to myself that eating the same meal two days in a row would give me the opportunity to compare and contrast the dishes for my blog, but ultimately, my attention to detail was overridden by my immense enjoyment of both dishes. The restaurants I chose were Vietnamese specific, not Asian, which is something for which I am stickler. If you are interested in trying pho I'd urge you to seek out a Vietnamese restaurant to get the real thing. I learned from Thuy that food was a huge part of her family culture. Pho broth takes days to cook, much like an Italian "gravy", and that type of investment is respected and cherished by the family. I am sad to say that I have lost touch with Thuy, but each time I have a bowl of pho, I am reminded of the special times we spent around her table, slurping and laughing. I hope someday to reconnect with Thuy, perhaps over a bowl of pho.