Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pho Much Disappointment, So Little Time...

I love Pho.  I make Pho. I love journalist Linda Ellerbee's recipe for Pho. It's good anytime... In the winter, nothing beats a steaming bowl of Pho when the wind is howling outside and you've been shoveling or skiing and the snow is either making life miserable or a joy.  I love Pho in the spring -- and those other two seasons.  This lovely beef soup, with its spicy fragrant broth, stirs my soul.  In Vietnam Pho is often the breakfast of champions. The tender slices of beef, the basil, the sriracha hot sauce, the lemon grass and anise infused steam rising, filling my nose with delectable aromas.  Pho is a sublime experience, when it's done right.

When we travel, I look for three things:  A good Q joint, authentic Ensanada-style fish tacos with cabbage and fresh tortillas thank you, and Pho (or to be honest, a good Vietnamese restaurant).  I search for these things because all three are thin on the ground in this neck of the woods. The eastern mid-west (does that make sense?) is not known for having a great sense of culinary adventure.  Oh, we have some wonderful restaurants -- Home Cooking, French, fusion, Indian and the like, even some pretty good pulled pork -- but no fish tacos except the 99 cent pirate variety, and absolutely no Vietnamese restaurants to be had. Not around here.  None. Nada. Zilch.

Once upon a time there was a nice Vietnamese restaurant. The food was wonderful, the service friendly and plentiful, the menu varied and interesting.  The prices were good. We went for lunch -- often. In winter, bowls of hot fragrant Pho keep my spirit alive through the long gray winter months. That basil infused steam soothed my soul -- gave me hope for the future. The seasons changed and the Bo Bun beef salad with summer rolls was out of this world on a hot summer day. Loved this restaurant!  But one sunny day after a lovely lunch, I noticed one of the cooks cleaning his olfactory canals with his index finger and that was the end of our relationship with this particular restaurant a restaurant that proved to be the only Viet game in town.

Still, I'm an optimist - or at least stubborn to the core.  I continued my search for local Pho while snagging a bowl whenever we traveled and the opportunity presented itself.  With hope in my heart and a dogged determination I carried on.

Imagine my delight when, on a foray to one of the faster growing areas of our fair city, we stumbled on a restaurant that advertised itself as  Vietnamese/Thai!  We'd planned to eat meatballs at IKEA but made an abrupt u-turn, heading directly towards Chopsticks -- a little storefront in a strip mall.  I'm no snob about these things.  As long as the place is clean, the food's good and the help keeps their digits where they belong, I'm a happy camper.

At six o'clock on a Saturday evening the place was empty save a lone two-topper.  Here in the mid-west folks tend to eat early.  Granted, it was a beautiful spring day and the Home Depot next door may have been siphoning off the trade, but the place was pretty much empty. Not to be deterred by lack of dining company we made our way in and were shown to one of the many available tables.

The menu was fairly small with the Vietnamese selection even smaller.  But Pho Tai (the raw beef variety) and Bo Bun were there!  We queried the servers. Yes, the Pho was wonderful, Yes the Bo Bun was delightful. Yes the Summer rolls were fabulous. We ordered.  We waited.  We were served.

First the Summer Rolls:  stuffed with crispy lettuce, plump rosy shrimp, mung bean sprouts, rice vermicelli -- served with a hoisin/peanut/Sriracha dipping sauce -- these little rice paper covered torpedoes were were good - just what a Summer Roll should be.  A harbinger of things to come?  Uh, not so fast...

Next came the entrees.  The Bo Bun looked fresh, abundantly beefy, served with the requisite Nam Pla (fish sauce) laden dressing on the side.  Sprouts, Broccoli slivers, peanuts, vermicelli.  It was all there and in ample quantities.  My husband dug right in -- as is his habit. Slurping away, his silence declared his pleasure with his selection.

I, on the other hand, looked at the bowl set before me with sinking disappointment.  Where was the plate of thinly sliced lovely pink raw beef, waiting to be lightly cooked -- by me?  Where was my piping hot bowl of fragrant beefy broth waiting for it's beefy density (I live with a physicist who thinks that the "You're my density..." line from Back to the Future  is the best joke in film...what can I say)? What was this cauldron of tepid watery broth slightly reminiscent of bath water with unappetizing slices gray beef floating on it's surface? No scents of lemon grass, no star anise to make my mouth water. I've eaten Pho from Philly to Vegas to LA.  This was something new and not improved.

I took a tentative sip.  Underwhelmed, I started adding. I threw in Sriracha.  I tossed in piles of Thai Basil.  I poured on the Nam Pla.  Nothing helped.  Tasteless, watery, tepid.  It was such a disappointment, I almost cried.  My delighted dinner partner, on the other hand,  was happily slurping and softly humming  -- plowing through his Bo Bun --  I was bummed.

Being the sweetie he is, my companion through life offered to share.  Like a shot, I accepted. Realizing my companion is probably wondering if there's enough for both of us, I decide to augment his Bun by fishing the gray floating islands of beef and vermicelli from my bowl of disappointment, adding the gleanings  to his yummy Bun.  We add a little more dressing and my hunger is sated, my faith restored.  Bun is good! Bun is as it should be. At least the entire meal wasn't a bust...

I'll make my own Pho soon.  I will photograph and post my (and Linda Ellerbee's) version of Pho.  I will slice my rosy beef paper thin.  I'll make my beautiful, fragrant broth and get it piping hot.  It will be heavenly.  It will be Pho much bliss. I will be happy again.

Bottom line:  if you're looking for Pho around Cincinnati, keep on looking.  Because while Chopsticks' Bo Bun is not bad, their Pho -- not so much...

7735 Cox Lane
West Chester, Ohio  45069

Meal for three without alcohol $44.
Pho: D
Bo Bun and Summer Rolls: B
Service: C
Atmosphere: B-

Chopsticks gets two forks down...

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