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Fa Faux Fuh Pho

5 Mar

Pho

I think I know how it is pronounced, but I can’t be certain. I’ve never had a misunderstanding when ordering. Sometimes I just point to the number next to it on the menu to avoid embarrassment. The waiters understand. If I called it Fa instead of Fuh…or Pho instead of Faux would I create an international incident? I think not.

The snow—or is that sleet or freezing rain—might be coming down for the 500th time in this endless winter, yet I’m inside happily slurping noodles in a warm aromatic oxtail-based, star anise-scented broth. The ability to pluck out thinly-sliced, braised in the broth, round steak—or maybe a gelatinous piece of tendon with chopsticks adds to my sense of contentment.

When I eat Pho, I often think of Otis Redding’s “Sad Song,” also known as “Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa.” But there is nothing sad about this Fa.

Or is it Fuh?

Below is some music to eat Pho by

 

 

Vietnamese by the Numbers

18 Sep

Saigonese

It was located on a decrepit stretch of Central Avenue, also known as Central Park Avenue, between Hartsdale and Scarsdale in Westchester.

“Remember what was across the street, Gerry?” Eugene said to his fellow Westchester lifer who, he thought would know such things.

Gerry looked at the wild growth of green space across from the restaurant. “Carvel?” He guessed.

I shook my head.  Even I knew that the Carvel, one of that ice cream franchise’s original stores, was down towards Hartsdale and I hadn’t lived in Westchester in almost 40 years.

We were stumped and that brought a proud smile to Eugene’s face. “Jesse’s hot dog truck,” he announced as if he just provided us with valuable information. “All he had were hot dogs with chili, onions, and mustard. None of that other stuff they put on hot dogs nowadays.”

We were in the parking lot of Saigonese, the restaurant chosen by another Westchester resident, Mike from Yonkers. The small oddly-designed structure looked like a former cat house and stood out among Central Avenue’s numerous hideous strip malls.

Inside the structure were an assembly of small tables; two were pushed together to make room for our party of five. Brightly lit with windows overlooking the adjacent gloomy stretch of landscape; muzak flowed from the restaurant’s sound system mirroring the dreary ambiance. But ambiance was not what our Chow City group was about. We’ve eaten in dumps without heat or air conditioning, off Styrofoam plates with thin paper napkins, but also where the food was so full of flavor, so memorable that it didn’t matter that you wouldn’t dare venture to the rest room—it was what we shoved into our mouths that counted. I was hoping that would be the result at Saigonese.

The menu offered no surprises; there was pho; there was bun and there were a number of grilled offerings. The only deviation was the addition of hot pots. But  taped over that section was a notice stating: “we no longer serve hot pots.”

“Is a summer roll the same as a spring roll,” Mike from Yonkers asked the waiter.

“On the west coast they call them spring rolls,” he said. “But they are the same.” And we had no reason to doubt his knowledge of such things.

For starters we ordered the exotic Saigon rolls and vegetarian summer roll along with the grilled spare ribs and the Vietnamese crepe, Saigonese style as if we knew any other style of Vietnamese crepe.

Four ribs for a party of five.

Four ribs for a party of five.

First to appear on our table were four grilled spare ribs. Now a spare rib is not an easy thing to share among gluttons so I volunteered to abstain, leaving the four ribs to the others. I made up for it, however, when the ample Vietnamese crepe appeared; a large pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork and vegetables that needed a jolt of something much more potent than the small bowl of sweetened fish sauce that came with it.  But there was no jolt to be had at our table.

“Chili sauce,” Mike from Yonkers, called to the waiter and he responded with a house made chili sauce and a bottle of Sriracha.

The exotic Saigon roll and the vegetable summer rolls arrived next. I examined them and then took a bite of the Saigon roll only to find out what supposedly made it exotic was the inclusion of Vietnamese sausage.

“Pass me one of those spring rolls,” Zio said to me.

“Unless we are in Los Angeles, I can only pass you the summer rolls,” I replied, but my reference to the West Coast/East Coast terminology for what was on our plates was lost on him.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

East coast spring rolls served in the late summer.

Like the crepe, the rolls, spring or summer, exotic or not needed a jolt as well. I slathered one in the provided chili sauce and braced myself for a heat assault that, surprisingly, never came. At Saigonese even the chili sauce was tepid.

It was time to order and I had decided on a bowl of comforting pho; the traditional with beef brisket.

The waiter next looked to Eugene. “Number 29,” he said to the waiter.

“The house special with grilled pork and shrimp.” The waiter responded.

“Yeah that one,” Eugene concurred.

“Number 18,” Zio said, pointing to the number on the menu.

“Grilled chicken,” the waiter recited.

“The man knows his numbers,” I said.

“What’s number 31?” Gerry quizzed him.

“The mixed vegetables,” He replied with confidence.

“Can you make it spicy,” Gerry asked.

“How spicy?”

“As spicy as you would have it if you ordered it,” Gerry said. “I like it hot.”

The waiter nodded and then muttered, “Don’t complain if it’s too hot.”

“I’ll have number 15,” Mike from Yonkers said.

“Grilled chicken with lemongrass…”  Now the waiter was showing off.

Saigonese Pho

Saigonese Pho

The pho did offer the comfort I craved but I also wanted some zing. I stirred a few drops of the chili sauce into the soup, yet it remained comfortingly bland.

“They’ve Westchesterized this food,” I announced, meaning they dumbed it down, reduced the flavor and spice to appease the local clientele.

“Not this. This is hot!” Gerry said, his nose properly running and his eyes bloodshot from the excess spice added to his mixed vegetable dish. And then he looked around to see if the waiter was within earshot. “But I’m not complaining.”

Number 31 with added spice.

Number 31 with added spice.

The lack of flavor in the dishes was more than made up for by the surprisingly very good Vietnamese flan I had for dessert. Who would have thought that flan would be the standout at a Vietnamese restaurant but at Saigonese it was.

Vietnamese flan

Vietnamese flan

After settling our bill, we congregated in the small, now dark parking lot. I made the mistake of wondering out loud what would be the best route back to the city.

“Go back and take the Bronx River,” Gerry suggested.

“No, take Central Avenue and then get on the Deegan,” Eugene said.

“That will take forever with all those lights,” Gerry argued.

“No it won’t,” Eugene barked. “Ten minutes.”

“Yeah, Central Avenue,” Mike from Yonkers. “It’s the easiest.”

The wastelands of Westchester.

The wastelands of Westchester.

I couldn’t listen anymore and instead got into the car. I decided to pull out onto Central Avenue and take the scenic route suggested by Mike from Yonkers and  Eugene. Yes there were lights, but at each red light I was able to ponder the parade of strip malls glowing with colorful neon, the national fast food chains, car dealers, drug stores, pizzerias, diners, and Chinese restaurants and wonder at all the treasures that lay within.

Saigonese

158 S. Central Park Ave.

Hartsdale

 

Name That Place

28 Oct

Nice looking stuff they have at this place. But the piquant stuff at this place that tastes even better than it looks, you can’t see in this picture.

No, the jewelry is not edible.

Come on, New York food fanatics, this one is so easy I’m not giving any hints.  If you know where this picture was taken, name it in the comment section below.  The answer will be revealed on Monday.

The Bronx Banh Mi Incident

17 Aug

World of Taste Seafood and Deli
R.I.P

World of Taste Seafood Deli: Circa 2008

After several years now of conducting these eating excursions, most of us in our group understand that it is imperative to always double check on the status of the establishment chosen. And the more obscure it might be, the more diligence required. An African restaurant ballyhooed by the Village Voice in, say February, might no longer exist by July. This time it was my turn to choose our destination and always looking out for the oft-neglected food borough, the Bronx; I did my research and came up with the name of a Vietnamese restaurant situated in an unlikely location on a stretch of Jerome Avenue which runs just below the tracks of the elevated number 4 subway line.

The restaurant was named Phung Hung and, a few days before we were to meet, I called and spoke to someone who seemed to confirm I had found the right place. On the date of our scheduled dinner, I remembered at the last minute to call once more—just to be absolutely sure of its authenticity. This time there was confusion. Was this not, Phung Hung? Had I dialed a wrong number? Whoever answered lost patience with me and hung up. I quickly went onto the computer and typed in the address and found another option; a restaurant called World of Taste Seafood Deli. I called again and was told that the same restaurant was formerly called Phung Hung but its name had been changed. The man I spoke to also told me that he would hold a table for six for “Mr. Brian.”

Seeing the restaurant on the corner of Jerome and 193rd St, I realized why the name was changed. There were photos of fried fish, chicken wings, fries and other fast food Chinese items displayed in the window. It was an appeal to the demographics of the neighborhood to offer what was familiar and safe, but, thankfully, the Vietnamese menu was also available. Gerry and Mike from Yonkers had already arrived and seated at a small round table in the stifling, Vietnam-like climate of the restaurant where a ceiling fan and an enormous window air conditioner cooled only those in their immediate vicinity.

Jerome Avenue

Gerry had a six-pack of beer in a brown paper bag and, at first, was brusquely told he couldn’t bring it into the restaurant. A moment later one of the proprietors, a woman of color who seemed out of place working in an Asian restaurant, asked Gerry if he “talked to David earlier.” Gerry, understanding that it was I who must have spoken to David, who, we learned, was the person I contacted on the phone making the reservation for “Mr. Brian” nodded and, immediately, was granted permission to bring and drink the beer, as long as it was in a paper cup. Apparently “Mr. Brian” carries some serious influence.

Eugene was a late scratch and Zio and Rick were on their way. While we waited, I noticed that most of the cooking in the open kitchen was done by two tiny elderly Vietnamese women. The possibilities of what was to be created in the kitchen by their experienced and no doubt skilled and comforting hands immediately excited me. The anticipation along with the heat combined to form a growing sheen of perspiration around my face and neck. The proprietor, who mentioned she was David’s partner, must have noticed and offered us a table directly in front of the huge, loud air conditioner.

Zio, a dreamy, whimsical smile on his face, walked in just as we moved. Before even sitting down, he announced that he grew up in the surrounding Kingsbridge neighborhood. Glancing around the restaurant but not really looking at anything, he began: “My grandfather had a fruit stand a few blocks up. . .there was a diner right over there on the corner. . .my father used to send money to relatives in Italy. . .” and on and on the reminiscing went. It took a jolt from the Vietnamese iced coffee he ordered, sweetened liberally with condensed milk, to revive him from his stupor and begin concentrating on the present business of stuffing his face.

As we expected, Rick was lagging behind; this time caught in Yankee Stadium traffic. We knew the scenario and began ordering with the assurance that Rick would be grateful with the scraps from our first course. We started with three “banh mi,” Vietnamese sandwiches served in a fresh loaf of French bread. The sandwiches were individual-sized but big enough to share knowing that there would be more. . .much more to come. The three sandwiches arrived looking like they belonged on the cover of Saveur, a glossy food magazine I used to scribble for. The three were banh mi xi mai, a Vietnamese meatball hero smothered in a bright red chili sauce, mi thit heo nuong, stuffed with grilled pork, pate, with sprigs of cilantro and cucumber peeking out, and the phung hung, looking like a traditional hero with cold cuts of ham, ground pork, and pate, but with the added zest of cilantro, chilies and soy sauce. The only complaint about the banh mi came from Zio who lamely claimed he could not negotiate breaking the phung hung version into sharable pieces without obliterating the beautifully prepared sandwich. But it was accomplished and though difficult, we were able to save a few samples for Rick who had just arrived.

Beautiful Banh Mi

Though not much deters us from over indulging on our food adventures, that there was nothing over six dollars on the menu made it practically impossible for us to resist what was to be a very public display of gluttony. We circled numbers that corresponded to the items on the menu and I brought it up to the proprietor who made it clear that she wanted me to read off the items by the number not by the Vietnamese name. There was number 25, country style beef cubes sautéed with scallion and onions, number 16, spring rolls with grilled pork and vegetables piled on rice vermicelli, number 30, shrimp with string beans, scallions and onion in a satea sauce, number 10, seafood with rice noodles soup, 35, beef noodle soup Hue style, and number 33, sautéed mixed vegetables. Once she wrote all the numbers down, needing two pages of her small pad to do so, she began barking out the numbers to the two Vietnamese women who immediately got to work.

Seafood noodle soup

“You know, they filmed Marty around here with Ernest Borgnine,” Zio blurted over the noise of the air conditioner.

Rick looked at him and as if on cue, shouted back, “You’re just a fat, little man. A fat, ugly man.”

Zio concurred: “I’m ugly! I’m ugly! I’m ugly!”

What do you wanna do tonight? I dunno. What do you wanna do?

The screen test ended when the parade of platters began arriving and even with two round tables pushed together, there was barely enough room to hold them all. So impressive was the display that it drew a comment from two diners who had come in after playing basketball at nearby St. James Park, the man shaking his head in awe while his female companion gazed incredulously. “With all that food, I was saying you all must be food critics,” the male basketball player said.

I waved his assertion off. “No, being critical about food just gets in the way of our eating,” I replied.

And there wasn’t much to be critical about at World of Taste Seafood Deli. If you wanted to be picky, the sautéed dishes; the vegetables and shrimp were nothing out of the ordinary, but maybe that was because we had become jaded after the remarkable banh mi, the spicy, beef noodle soup, and the seafood with rice noodles. Closing time was 8:30 and the staff was cleaning up while we were still picking through the remains of our feast. As they were leaving with their take out order, the basketball players glanced one last time at the devastation we created on our combined two tables and shook their heads in awe.

It hadn’t gotten any cooler once we vacated the World of Taste Seafood. Zio got that gaze on his face again and pointed to the train tracks above us. “Martin Sheen and Tony Musante—you know the movie. . .**“ But before Zio could finish telling us about the movie, the uptown number 4 train rumbling above us cut him off.

Sheen and Musante frolicking on the subway in the Bronx.

*World of Taste Seafood Deli sadly closed in 2009. Soon after, Pho Mien Tay, another Vietnamese restaurant opened in the same spot, but was short-lived followed by Pho Saigon #1, which also did not last.  Across the street is another Vietnamese restaurant, called Com Tam Ninh Kieu that has survived the turmoil at 2614 Jerome Avenue that specializes in Pho but without its quirky charms or the magnificent banh mi. Now, at 2614 Jerome there is a nail supply store with signs in Vietnamese.

**The title of the movie Zio was reminiscing about can be found in the title of this post.

World of Taste Seafood Deli: Circa 2011

Pho Unrated

8 Feb

Our visit to Pho Viet Huong marked our group’s third anniversary. It also was our first without original member, Charlie. We were now down to five and needed to decide whether to bring in a sixth again and if so, who might be a good fit for us. It had to be someone with the advanced qualifications of being able to eat huge quantities without shame and with no dietary restrictions or taboos. Also someone who might just display their own foibles while blending within the particular eccentricities of a few of our current members, myself included. It would be awhile before we found that person.

Pho Viet Huong
73 Mulberry St,
Chinatown

 

 

Eugene was becoming suspicious. Because we could not meet last month, he was beginning to believe that we were purposely delaying his well-researched pick of Pho Viet Huong on Mulberry Street in Chinatown; that the man who regaled us with tales of his “Crocodile Dundee (I & II)” viewings was somehow being slighted in our strict order of things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Eugene conveniently forgot that it was he who steered us to one of our greatest finds to date: Tandoori Hut; albeit the same man who made us trudge out to Brighton Beach for Café Glechick and the still talked about fermented raisin “soft” drink, kavas. After a two-month layoff for reasons beyond everyone’s control, we were more than ready to resume, minus Charlie who declared he would be on at least a six-month sabbatical while he sampled the culinary goodies around his new residence of Emmaus, PA, if there was such a thing.

 

 

But instead of gambling on a Queens or Brooklyn destination, Eugene played it safe with his Vietnamese Chinatown pick. And when, after Zio and I arrived in the restaurant and declared that we had previously eaten at Pho Viet Huong, recognizing it not by its name but by its location and decor, I could tell he immediately regretted not choosing the Tibetan place he had earlier hinted at.

I certainly wasn’t complaining that we were in Chinatown. The weather was typically miserable, as it often seems to be when we convene. An easy, safe destination was fine with me and Zio, though he had already dined at Pho Viet Huong, never had the opportunity to sample the frogs’ legs. He wasn’t going miss out this time.

Our very eager waiter was ready to get going. The menu was vast and needed intense studying. To make things somewhat manageable, we first concentrated on appetizers including the odd pairing of barbecue beef wrapped in grape leaves, something called grilled pork hash, and a Vietnamese crepe stuffed with shrimp and pork. I was suffering from a serious head cold and knowing how proficient the Vietnamese are with their soups, thought we should order one large soup to share. The waiter, for some reason, most likely a language barrier, seemed reluctant to admit that the $9 soup could be shared by all. A few minutes later, however, he returned happily with the huge bowl and five separate small bowls. The soup was hot and sour shrimp and it had enough fire to begin to open up my clamped sinuses. All the appetizers were exemplary, the barbecue beef wrapped in grape leaves nothing like what you would experience in a middle-eastern or Mediterranean restaurant.

 

 

We now had the time to concentrate on entrees and Zio wasted little time requesting the frogs’ legs with curry in a casserole. Rick ordered the whole fish that, when it arrived, had been fried to oblivion and covered in a lemon grass sauce, that I could not really taste that was no fault of the restaurant’s but due to my taste buds being severely compromised by my head cold. I could, however, surmise that Zio’s frog’s legs were so tough they were pretty much inedible, that Gerry’s pork with black pepper in a brown sauce was too similar to the generic “brown sauce” I’ve experienced in numerous Chinese restaurants, and that Eugene’s curry shrimp over rice vermicelli, simple though it appeared and inexpensive at only $5 had the most flavor and, in my head-clogged condition was the best of our selected entrees.

 

 

Though not on the spectacular level of our previous outing, Malaysian Rasa Sayang, Pho Viet Huong, as long as you can pare through the extensive menu, concentrate more on the soups and appetizers, and ignore the temptation for the overly-exotic like frogs’ legs—something we, and Zio especially, have a tough time doing, was an admirable selection by Eugene.

Pho Viet Huong lives on and from what I can tell, has prospered. They’ve even received an “A” from the New York City Department of Health, which they display proudly and prominently in the restaurant’s front window.

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