I used to date someone who didn’t like soup. This probably should have raised a red flag, but it didn’t. I figured distaste of liquid food probably wasn’t the best way to decide whether or not someone was worth pursuing. But this was also mildly problematic as one of my chief pleasures in life is pondering life’s little quirks over a steaming bowl of grilled chicken pho (pronounced “Fuh”), perhaps with a friend or two or three or eight, and enjoying the salty, greasy broth to the last drop.
Some people crave French fries, chips, or pizza (I also crave pizza, but that was a recent development stemming from the fact that there is a small Halal pizzeria inside the metro station at Concordia and it smells so damn good and tastes good too. I think they put cinnamon on it. Yum), pizza with chips, basically anything salty and crunch, but I crave Pho. All day, all the time. Seriously, I could probably live off the stuff (though that would be pretty unhealthy and I’d probably get constipated from all the rice noodles. Have you ever eaten a whole thing of thai express and just felt it sit in your stomach like a block of cement, blocking access to everything? Pho is a bit like that but since it’s mostly liquid it’s okay to eat more than once a week).
As I sit in my usual haunt for when I’m lunching alone on Thursday afternoons, the Vietnamese grease spoon “Pho Nguyen” on the corner of St Marc and Demaisonneuve (literally a hole in the wall), I muse upon the universality of Pho and the different demographics attracted by the delicious, albeit deceptively messy meal. There’s me, poor university student blogging away, tucked into a corner next to the door. Luckily it’s still about 5 degrees outside and the soup is creating a nice warm furnace.
Over in another corner are tiny Asian women in the mid-fifties scarfing down their soup and jabbering to each other in Vietnamese. To my right are yet more university students discussing today’s lecture on the history of china as well as a young Vietnamese woman who clearly comes here a lot. I’ve done away with the rules on how to properly eat Pho (apparently you’re not supposed to drink the broth but it’s delicious so I eat it anyway). She expertly maneuvers the noodles and beef medley (beef, beef balls, strips of raw beef, tripe…) onto her spoon and acts as middleman between the tables on each side of her because, for some strange reason, they don’t have chopsticks or Sriracha. Meanwhile, the men in matching, three-piece pinstripe suits speaking French to each other wave off the owner’s offer of a fork to eat their soup with. She flits about, taking orders, refilling water, and doesn’t spend more than a minute at each table. If you come to her café, you better know what you want before she gets to your table.
Eating Pho is more than an excuse to indulge in salt, grease, and rice noodles. It’s a whole experience for me, from people watching to the actual nitty gritty of eating the soup. One does not simply eat pho. You have to let it dribble down your chin, add consistency and texture with the raw bean sprouts, and you absolutely have to modify the flavor with as much hoisin and sriracha (rooster sauce) as you can stomach. The next step is purging the soup of any meat product. Once you’ve extracted all the scraps of meat from your mass of noodles, commence the noodle eating process. My preferred method is eat a bunch of noodles and then a third or so of the broth (otherwise extracting the noodles from the liquid becomes a slippery and unpleasant experience). Be sure to offset the extreme saltiness with a glass or three of water and run to the bathroom when you get the chance.