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When I lived in New York City my favorite restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant called Phó Grand in Chinatown. I would wake up nearly every morning craving it, and even though I lived in Brooklyn, I’d still drag my ass on the train to have lunch there.It may seem surprising that in a culinary capital like New York, known for its cutting edge and high-end restaurants, my favorite would be a simple and casual phó restaurant, but it was because their bowls were loaded with more than just broth and noodles. For me, they were loaded with memories.
Tastes and smells can transport us to places we may have thought forgotten. But like the perfume of one’s first girlfriend, or the smell of mom’s apple pie cooling by the window on a Sunday afternoon, certain tastes and aromas will always stay with us.
My phó addiction began a long time ago, in another hole in the wall restaurant in Portland, OR called Toast and Phó. Despite it’s suspicious name, it was run by a crew of elderly women who barely spoke English, and served some of the most sensational broth I had ever had. It took me over a year though of passing by it daily before I ever ventured inside off a tip from a friend who told me it’d be a good fix for a head cold I was suffering from. I was hooked. My first sip immediately transported me back to my childhood, sitting at my grandmother’s table sipping her homemade ox-tail soup. Though it had been may years since I had sat at that table, I could still remember and sense everything about it because of that soup.
From then on, wherever I traveled I had to seek out the best phó restaurants. Even in Phoenix, AZ, in the middle of the desert, I would spent nearly every afternoon driving miles out of my way not just to satisfy my hunger for food, but for all the memories it was loaded with. Sitting there with a steaming bowl in front of me, I was taken back not just to my childhood, but now to all the new memories I was creating with every meal. Still today, I smile when I’m brought back to the time some friends and I snuck in a bottle of Marlöt, a special liquor from Chicago, and got toasted taking shots out of ramekin containers.
Not everything we’re reminded of is pleasant, though. One of the most challenging culinary experiences I had was in Chile. Chilean food in general is pretty bland and covered with condiments to mask the lack of flavor. I was living in the coastal town of Viña del Mar, and took a weekend trip with a friend to the capital city of Santiago. What I was most excited for was one of the sole Vietnamese restaurants in the entire country, only to have it end in complete disgust and disappointment. In their defense, it wasn’t really phó proper, but rather a soup somewhat reminiscent of what phó is suppose to be. The broth was strangely sweet, and the noodles where still many minutes before al-dente. Despite it being one of the most expensive meals I had in Chile, it was certainly one of the worst.
Yet, even that comes back to me when I commiserate by myself on a late afternoon as I load by bowl with a threatening amount of Shiracha and chili paste onto a pile of animal parts and vermicelli noodles. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.