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“Enraptured by Pho” Just Like Anthony Bourdain but in Tulsa
Pho can become an obsession. Hot, steamy, redolent of beef and a thousand spices, curiously comforting and evocative, with hints of the sea and the land, of rice paddies and temple bells, to us a bit exotic but to Vietnamese bringing memories of home and childhood in quite the same way as a simple tea cookie helped Proust to recapture his past, this simple soup, first served in northern Vietnam around 1880 but only becoming popular after 1950, has achieved the aura of fable and tradition. There are websites, clubs, magazines. Pho debates are endless. Which is better, northern or southern? What condiments should be added? You can imagine a pilgrim sliding along muddy jungle trails, gliding on tiny boats up the Mekong, searching for that perfect bowl of pho.
I was immune to all that. For me it was just a pleasant, mildly spiced soup with some noodles thrown in. Until last night. At some point yesterday I was hit by a strangely compelling craving. Must… have… pho! Some time on my computer yielded the name of a place as yet unknown to me, way out east where Mingo becomes a two-lane country road. It was dark, we crossed mighty rivers (Mingo Creek) and I tried to imagine I was on Vietnam Highway 1 (which is probably better maintained). Amidst dark deserted low-slung buildings, the lights of Pho Da Cao shone out like a beacon. I wouldn’t call it elegant, but a lot of thought and effort went into the wood-paneled decor. Okay enough about the decor… let’s get to the pho.
We got ours with thinly sliced steak and meatballs (Pho Tai Bo Vien), and we got the largest size ($9). Ohhh it was large. You could feed several families and use the bowl to bathe your baby. Now along with all this goodness came a long platter heaped high with sprigs of basil and cilantro, slices of lime and lots of raw bean sprouts. I took some broth, beef and noodles in a smaller bowl and tasted it. Mild, hints of star anise and maybe cinnamon, not all that compelling. Then I added some bean sprouts. Let them soak. They were great! So I added some cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Then some basil. Then more sprouts. With each addition the flavor changed. It was like tasting a new soup each time. If Heraclitus had been Vietnamese, he would have said that you never taste the same pho twice. And the taste became richer, sweeter, more compelling until by the end I was shoveling it in, oblivious to everything but my need for pho.
And it wasn’t even my pho! Yes, it was Cathe’s pho. I had ordered Bun Bo Hue ($7).
That’s a famous soup too. Food explorer Anthony Bourdain traveled to a tiny town in Vietnam just to try it. If he’d been closer to Tulsa, he could have had it here. It’s described on the menu as “served usually with beef shank, pigs feet, steamed Vietnamese pork loaf, pigs blood, rice noodles.” Of course that appealed to me, and I made sure they put the pigs blood in. (It’s not a liquid, it comes in little cakes that look and taste like beef liver.) The broth was lovely. Its appeal was a lot like the pho, but the taste was different. In fact, I think I might even like the Bun Bo Hue better. “Spicy, delicious, vibrant and soulful,” said Anthony Bourdain while describing it. I can’t top that.
I mustn’t forget the pork chop ($7).
Betty got that. Soft, tender, with a sweet, spicy marinade, it’s a fine choice. But nothing could outshine the pho. My favorite pho addict article is titled “Enraptured by Pho” Finally I understand the title.
Pho Da Cao
9066 E. 31 Street
Open 11 AM to 9 PM every day
Anthony Bourdain tries Bun Bo Hue:
“Enraptured by Pho” essay:
Brian Schwartz: Author
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.