11819 Wilshire Boulevard (@ Granville)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
There’s a big difference between guys and girls when it comes to the evolution of a relationship that I’ve observed in all my years of...watching my friends date. ;)
Guys have to be instantly in love with a girl, or else he and she will always be “just friends.” There’s no such thing as a guy being friends with a girl, hanging out, and eventually developing some sort of romantic love for a girl. You’re thinking, “What? What do you mean? I know a perfectly happily married couple that started out as friends!” Ha. That’s what you think. Sure, a guy can “be friends” with a girl on the outside, but if they end up together, that means he was secretly hoping for “more than friends” on the inside. Either he’s got great long-term strategy or he was just too shy and geeky to ask her out from the get-go. If a guy doesn’t feel a wicked burning love for a girl right from the start, there’s no chance for this girl. What this all boils down to is that guys cannot be wooed. Girls, you can’t coax a guy into loving you. It doesn’t work.
Girls on the other hand, can be wooed. Girls absolutely can learn to love. They can be transformed from utter contempt for a cocky bastard to head-over-heels for such a confident gentleman. There doesn’t seem to be any logical, scientific explanation for why the existence of double X chromies wires the heart and brain this way. All it takes is patience and persistence on the part of the guy. I remember in college, a guy friend once told me that no tree will never fall as long as you axe away at it slowly but surely. Girls are trees, by the way, if the metaphor slipped past ya’ there.
As much as I like to think I am not a stupid girl, I am. There. I said it. I am a stupid girl. *sigh* I hate to admit it, but I, too, can be wooed. Oh, I’ll be stubborn at first. You may not make it if you give up when the axe deflected by my prissy, whiny bark of pink steel, but if you keep trying, and maybe use a Santoku instead of something off page 32 of the Paul Bunyan catalog, I will bend. I, too, am one of those trees that will eventually succumb to persistent, patient chopping. I, too, will finally stand on my D&G peep-toe stilletoes, tilt my fresh-out-of-Umberto’s head to one side and say...
“Hey, you know, pho’s not so bad after all. In fact, pho kind of makes me...sweat.”
The first time I tried Vietnamese food, and I’m not talking about those puny, cold, shriveled, pallid “summer rolls” shrouded in rice paper as if ready-wrapped for the tomb at California McCheesecake, but Vietnamese food from a Vietnamese restaurant, I pho-king hated it. (You knew a joke like that would have to come some time, right?) It was pho, and I hated it with a capital L. Oops. I meant I loathed it. It swaggered up to the table, totally full of its steaming, raw beefy self, dripping with leafy, stem-y, detestable, vile, evil, noxious nasty cilantro and all kinds of flashy accessories – a ridiculously trendy messy bedhead of bean sprouts, a glittering wedge of tart lime, green chili peppers sliced into rings, and a huge gaudy sprig of basil that made me want to roll my eyes. I hated it. If I had a "type," it was so totally absolutely, most definitely not my type. The person I was with tried to encourage me, tried to point all the stuff like, “But you like brothy and soupy!” and “You can just cover up all that cilantro with a little of this soy sauce stuff. What are these? This brown sauce.” I watched in utter horror as the broth in my bowl of pho went from a relatively translucent, light beige dishwater to a dark, murky, LA sewer residue brown, and stank as if someone had used fish innards to wipe and flushed it, leaving it to ferment in rusty pipes for three weeks. There was no way, none, no way, shaking my head, lips clamped shut, that I was putting that into my mouth.
But I did.
I wanted to spit it out, but it was a public place and aside from letting a look of utter disgust sweep over my face, I do have some decorum, so I swallowed it, holding myself back from melodramatic dry-heaving right there in my chair. Blech. After choking it down, and killing the taste with straight slices of the raw chili peppers, I swore that I would never eat pho, nor any other Vietnamese food for that matter, ever again, because that’s how much I hated it and its whole stinky-ass fish-sauced, cilantro and lime family. (Incidentally, I realize now that fish sauce does not play a role in pho, and it was erroneously added to my introductory pho, thus scarring me.)
But then I tried it again, which was not that much better.
Then again, and I was mildly impressed by a sausage.
Finally, I made it to Pho 99. Strangely enough, I have slipped in and out of the glass doors and ducked past the somewhat out-of-place waterfall sculpture of Pho 99 enough times to have the rumorazzi drooling all over their Benz-bashing vehicles.
Granted, I can’t eat everything on an extensive menu of pho, bun, and com, but hey, no cuisine is perfect. That would be too weird. You just love the things you have grown to love, tolerate the things that are tolerable, and just completely ignore the things that you don’t like. That’s why I love cha gio (fried egg rolls, different from the goi cuon, which are rice paper wrapped, fresh spring rolls), I tolerate having to pick out cilantro from my pho because the salty broth is refreshing even when I come straight off 45-uphill minutes on the treadmill, and I leave the nasty fresh basil, which sometimes includes mint, as a lovely looking garnish on the small side plate. Basil only works for me when it’s hidden between a giant creamy ball of mozzarella and a tomato.
Pho 99 is hidden away in the corner on the first floor of a Westside mini-mall that is a miniature tri-story Vegas, complete with newly branded Kinkos-call-me-FedEx-now providing rainbow brite sunburst decor, a surgery center, and an embarassing testament to all Asian cuisines, Buffet City, spelled out in ridiculous cartoon font neon. There’s a garage underneath the plaza, but you have to fight it out with the rest of the frat boys on their way to Q’s who ignore the posted signs, and mumble something about “Subway” or “Baja Bud’s” to the attendant. They know he’s not stupid, and he knows they know, but it’s a little charade that has to be played out.
The restaurant is almost too brightly lit, which is marvelous for food dorks with cameras like me, but not very romantic. Then again, slurping pho and smelling like raw onions and scallions is not very romantic, which certainly doesn’t explain why every table around the perimeter is taken up by what looks like young couples on a lovey-dovey break from studying for an AsianAm final, heads bent over steaming hot bowls, sucking down noodles and broth in a manner that would make you swoon. But it’s not all young Asians in over-sized hooded sweatshirts and flip flops; there are a few others in there, too.
The same three, glowing pink, round-faced women are always working there. They look related, perhaps even sisters, but then you know what they say. All those Asians tend to look alike. ;) On the weekends, a gaunt, spiky-haired young man in plain black pants and plain shirt waits on most of the tables even though the same three women are there, now leaning across the cashier counter clicking and murmuring away in Vietnamese. He could be the 14 year-old son of one of the women, or he could be the 34 year-old brilliant billionaire business owner of the Pho 99 empire, coming in to give his staff a break. It’s hard to tell.
The first time I went to Pho 99, I reviewed the menu, taking what was apparently much longer than average, as I could tell from the repeated visits of the notepad-wielding waitress to our table that most people know what they’re going to order before they even walk through the front door. But there’s more to pho than just a bowl of meat-based broth teeming with slippery white rice noodles (sometimes called vermicelli), scallions, cilantro, and paper-thin half-rings of raw white onion. The noodle-soup comes with a choice of what I can only call “toppings” – various meats, tofu, and vegetables.
Pho 99’s menu offers both Northern-style pho (which I have learned is also called pho bac) and Southern-style, which certainly reads and looks like pho, but is not called pho (at least on their menu). Rather, it is called by their noodle-types: hu tieu (rice noodles) or mì (thin yellow egg noodles). Both Northern and Southern types have noodles, but Northern-style pho is made with a simple beef-based broth and though you can order gà (chicken), various shellfish, or dau hu (tofu) in this Northern-style pho, it seems natural to eat it with any combination of the different cuts of beef ranging from thin slices of meat like tái (rare steak), chín (brisket), and nam (flank), to gân (tendon) and sách (tripe). There are also bò viên (beef meatballs) which is easy to remember because it sounds like “bovine.”
Southern-style noodle soup has either hu tieu noodles or mì noodles, and a slightly more complex chicken- and pork-based broth, and Pho 99’s menu doesn’t offer the same Northern-style cuts of beef, sticking to chicken, seafood, and pork. For a noob-ista like me, it’s enough to know that the difference between Northern and Southern is two sides of a war, meats upon which the broths are based, and some of the “toppings.” However, for a seasoned expert, there are probably additional important subtleties derived from other herbs and spices in the broth. Both broths are clear, refreshing, and deliciously salty, with a simplicity in flavor that allows each individual to season their own broth with the several bottles of condiments on the table along with the fragrant garnishes that come with the pho. If Korean soups are McJji-gae’s, then Vietnamese pho is Pho King, because you always have it your way.
None of these, can I pronounce (**see note below**, and yes, I just sounded like Yoda), so I play the part of jungle monkey and point. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter what kind of noodle soup I order – pho or hu tieu, beef or chicken – because ultimately, all I’m after is the broth. Overly loving squeezes from the green-tipped bottle (sriracha) and generous additions of chili sauce (sambal) tint my broth a deep, yet bright, red. The twisted heap of noodles at the bottom of the bowl have simply served as an organic sieve, filtering out the tiny, flattened seeds from the chile sauce and any wayward cilantro leaves that escaped my chopsticks at the initial purging, as I slurp down deep plastic spoonful after spoonful of the broth, grunting and glistening and grinning like a goddamned jungle monkey.
Hu tieu hoac mì hoành thánh xá xíu is the Southern-style noodle soup
with won ton and what I know as char siu, the pink-edged barbecued pork. At Pho 99, the won ton are tiny meat fillings wrapped with pale yellow tissue wrap, not unlike the dumplings I see in many Chinese and Thai soups. They are much better than the char siu, flimsy flaps of meat that taste as dry and gray as they look. I have resigned myself to always ordering the pho dau hu (tofu) because it comes with additional vegetables like broccoli and cabbage. In the case of pho, pork, won tons, and even deep-fried triangles of tofu are unnecessary garnishes. However, unlike cilantro and basil, these I eat simply because they stand in the way of my getting to the broth.
Pho 99’s soup bò viên (beef ball soup) begged to be ordered on my first trip there because partly, it made me giggle, but mostly, it seemed that as a soup without noodles, it was made for me. The broth offered a warm, welcoming steam facial, but I don’t need to make the meatball mistake again. They looked fairly harmless, cut into hemispheres, floating like beefy fishing bouys in the bowl, but they were tough and had far more unidentifiable gristle than I care for in a meatball. Perhaps Pho 99’s meatballs were a fluke, in which case I’d be willing to try them again at a different place, but if that’s the way Vietnamese meatballs are meant to be, I’ll stick with mine, made at home and lounging in puddles of marinara.
Pho takes up two of the three pages of food on Pho 99’s menu (the last page has beverages and desserts). The other page has a few categories of other common Vietnamese dishes. Bún (rhymes with “soon,” not “sun”) is similar to pho in that the thin, almost opaque white rice noodles come in the same type of bowl. However, bún is like a rice noodle salad, rather than a soup, topped with a grilled meats or sausage, fresh vegetables including shredded lettuce and sliced cucumbers (that’s the “salad” part), chopped peanuts, and accompanied by cha giò, the deep-fried egg roll. There is no broth, and the accompanying condiment is a very sweet, lightly sour sauce that has a not-so-faint fragrance of fish which makes bún the least appealing dish on the menu to me.
The Vietnamese sausages on bun are not your typical bratwurst. They are sausages in that they are an indiscriminate mix of unidentifiable meat parts, but formed into squared off patties, they bear a somewhat disturbing resemblance to spam. Pho 99’s grilled meats are always good, glossy with some sort of lightly sweet glaze, but it’s not enough for me to endure...the fishy sauce. I can order their cha giò, which are deliciously greasy-crisp, as an appetizer.
Món xào is a Vietnamese stir-fry of mixed vegetables, meat, seafood or tofu, served with either egg noodles or rice noodles, both of which can be made crisp on request. The rice noodles in món xào are wide and flat, similar to a Chinese chow fun, and Pho 99’s special “House” sauce tastes suspiciously of those very special soy, hoisin, and oyster sauces. Món xào is nothing special, but is a decent alternative if you’re tagging along with pho-seeking friends.
Pho 99 also has bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich on French baguette, which I will try one of these days at one of the many bánh mì-specific outlets around southern California, as well as bò kho, a Vietnamese-style beef stew. Com, like cilantro, is something I likely wouldn’t choose myself because it is a rice-based dish, and rice is not high on my list of favorites. In fact, rice is not on my list of favorites at all. However, let it be known that com is rice, and I feel okay not ordering rice in a restaurant called Pho 99. :)
I can’t say I am a freak for pho like many are, but it has definitely grown on me.
And I certainly know that I may not be getting the best that Vietnamese cuisine has to offer by going to Pho 99 here on the Westside, but it’s far more convenient than Westminster, cheap, and it doesn’t make me want to gag.
But here is where Vietnamese food and guys diverge. With pho, I can settle. Yeah, I’ll admit I have “a thing” for pho now.
**Note: I realized after publishing that all the pretty, peculiar accent marks in the Vietnamese language only appear as blank boxes on the screen, so please forgive my exclusion of these on the spellings of all the foods.**