Monday, March 1, 2010

On the ninth day, He was wicked hungry and said "let there be Pho", and it was good...

I really can't rightly talk about my love affair with tacos without bringing up the other staple. Years ago a colleague of mine was rambling about where to eat in this town and mentioned a seedy dump in a Ramada Inn serving Pho. Who, I asked? I have long since been obsessed with Asian food cultures and spent many a long and sometimes uncomfortable afternoon scouring the shelves in Asian grocery stores pretending to know what I was looking at. The more I read, the more I became familiar, the more I ate, the more I cooked, the more things I would buy. Now, most of the times in whites, I stroll around and they don't look at me so weird.

But at the time, I knew the name but couldn't tell you 1st thing about Pho. So, intrigued, I packed up my wife, a little courage, and went off in search of a seedy looking Ramada in a seedy part of town, to Pho Kali. After perusing the hourly room rates, we entered the dragon.

Plain tables, plain walls, 1 TV playing soaps, the occasional random toddler running here and there, and a short Vietnamese guy standing in the middle of the dining room looking at us curiously. We sat. I saw chop sticks, spoons, sriracha, chili sambal, hoisin, and a boat load of napkins. Confidence growing. Easily numbered menu subtitled in english. Confidence still going strong. "I'll try the #4, the fried spring rolls." "No, you have fresh spring roll." "Uhhh, exactly my good man, what you said." It's always a plus when you are told what you will or will not have! On to the main objective. Pho. Shaved rare beef, brisket, tripe, tendon, beef ball.....let's start easy and say, just rare beef. Maybe I'll upgrade to the brisket and tennis shoe next time. And the size. Small, medium, large. Why not go big?

As we waited, I shopped around, eyeing the scene. Not much talking going on. An older couple and a young couple with a little kid all slurping up some mystery from punch bowls. The spring rolls arrive. Shrimp and pork spring rolls bursting with fresh, I don't know, life I guess. The punch of Thai basil and cilantro. A bit of some sweet mirin dipping sauce. Confidence finally steamrolled through my veins and we were ready to throw down on whatever magic was in the steaming bowls.

Next came a plate with beautifully fresh bean sprouts, thai basil, cilantro, onion, limes, and sliced chilies. And the main event. A word of warning if you have never had Pho and before I forget to mention it. Don't go big. You have to work your way up to it. For real. Placed before us were mini bathtubs of rice sticks, scorching broth, and a mountain of shaved meat.

It's a blank canvas....ok, not blank but more like a choose your own adventure book. Someone provides you with all of the elements for something brilliant and what makes it truly such is that you are sole author of the creation. Add some bean spouts, a couple torn basil leaves, some cilantro, a squeeze of lime on the meat, soy/fish sauce, then try and outwit yourself. Reach for the chili sambal, drop in a spoonful, double dog dare yourself and add two more. Maybe a dash of hoisin; never really was a big fan. Then mix it all up, watching as the beef just barely cooks through, and debate the first bite. Chopsticks or spoon? You do have two hands. After you dive in and your body has a chance to catch up, relish in the goodness before chili sambal has you overrun with tears, sweating, and night terrors.

Pho is one of those easy to recreate meals with just a little ingenuity. The broth is simple yet rich and complex. Beef bones, onion, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, star anise, clove....that's a start anyways. But honestly, from a cook's perspective who works a lot and comes home hungry and impatient, you can find perfectly good Pho in a cube. Let's say that you don't mind a little MSG and a little spike in your sodium intake. Check out your local asian grocery store. Phillipino owned and operated are my favorite in JAX. There you can get just about everything. Rice sticks, sambal, sriracha, bean sprouts, thai basil, fish sauce, and the elusive Pho in a cube. Really. Looks like bouillon cubes and says Pho. They make fresh rice sticks and the local grocery owner swears by them. Becca says they are too starchy. She has a point. Besides, dried rice sticks cook in about 2 minutes when covered with steaming broth. Drop by Winn Dixie or Wegmans for some protein, limes, and maybe some mushrooms, and you're all set. Par freeze your protein so you can shave it wicked thin, make your broth, and assemble.

All cooks have an approach, a perspective to food and the world they see. I have always been fascinated with the relationship of food and history. There is so much to be learned about the world, it's people, and it's past and it's brilliant how people have captured those things through utilization of our senses. You can taste, smell, and see history and a respect for culure in a rocking dish of food. There are wonderful and exciting options out there, in every town. Challenge yourself to try something new, maybe a little outside of your comfort zone. We all live on a budget, it doesn't always have to be some cutting edge, refined cooking either. There is much to be said for cuisines that have been around for thousands of years. They've had a lot of time to practice, screw up, and try again

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