A good pho dining experience is a ritual.
The waiter points at an empty table. You take a seat and order the #1. You grab your chopsticks, your soup spoon and your sauce dish. You prepare a cocktail of chili paste and hoisin, set your sauce and silverware in front of you with great care and electric anticipation. You don’t waste time chatting, you don’t bother with appetizers and you take a few deep breaths, because the soup is going to arrive soon, and expediency is of the essence.
The successful consumption of pho takes five minutes, because in order to appreciate the vermicelli noodles before they get too mushy, you have to stuff your face with them as quickly as possible. In order to appreciate the slices of beef in the soup, you have to snag them before they overcook. When the pho arrives, add the lime, sprouts and jalapenos immediately and dig in.
My pho ritual is carnivorous. I pick out medium-rare morsels from a beefy broth. I dip each bite into a cocktail of chili paste, mixing fatty broth with viscous chili to create a slimy, blood-like residue that permeates each dish in my eating area. I order extra sliced steak in the raw, dipping each sanguine slice of Vietnamese carpaccio in hot broth long enough to transform red into pink, and tearing into each slice like cavemen around a fire. I inhale from the bowl and sip as if it were a fountain of youth, a chalice that restores energy, health and happiness. India has it right: The cow is a holy animal, a god whose blood and flesh transcends mere metaphor.
I may have a skewed experience with Vietnamese soup. The first time I tried the trendy ethnic offering coincided with my first return to the life of an omnivore. My casual meal at Berkeley’s Pho Hoa resulted in an afternoon of whimpering face-down on a dormitory couch. As it turned out, my body couldn’t handle the effects of sucking on cow, and forever after, pho seemed to me the antithesis of vegetarianism. Of life’s carnivorous offerings, I ranked Vietnamese beef soup with such bloody engagements as prime rib, smothered fried chicken and a BBQ sampler platter.
Vegetarian pho is a contradiction in terms.
The broth is empty, soulless. It doesn’t take too many sips before extra lime, jalapenos and chili paste are required, and even then, the broth lacks the viscosity of true beef broth, the invaluable nature of cow fat that imprints its flavor onto each bite of vermicelli. The ingredients are unexciting, unspecial. When I dig around a bowl of vegetarian pho with chopsticks, an extra fatty piece of brisket, hiding beneath a sea of white noodles like a gummy bear under cream of wheat, will not be there to brighten my day. I can insist that vegetables are delicious, that you don’t need meat to enjoy life – but I cannot defend vegetarian pho. I’ve tried it a few times now, at Pho Van in San Diego and at Kim Son in San Francisco. Each bowl has failed to meet expectations in similar, inglorious manner.
A simple rebuttal to this accusation is that vegetarian pho isn’t pho. It’s Vietnamese vegetable soup with vermicelli noodles. It’s easier to appreciate a meatless item when your brain doesn’t compare it to a meatful item. Wheat gluten is actually pretty delicious. Chicken set off by quotation marks is not. Vegetarian pho, Pho Chay or Pho Raji Cai Dau Hu, tastes good. The vegetables are delicious, and vermicelli noodles are plenty appetizing on their own. It’s one of those things that I would never have tried in my lifetime if not for my bouts of selective fasting, which is the reason why I do this silly little diet of mine in the first place… yet, it may not be one of the things I come back to when I’m once again a meat-eater.
My most recent encounter with vegetarian pho took place in an arena provided by Pho Clement 2, the second restaurant in a miniature Richmond franchise. Pho lovers should be satisfied with this place on a superficial level, for it is an open restaurant with roomy tables, all the right condiments ready and waiting, and a number in its name. My order was taken immediately, and my soup arrived moments after. Everything in the world of pho was as it should be, except that my order was disappointingly free of tasty beefy morsels and floating pockets of cow fat, leaving me to wonder, “Why did I prepare this dipping sauce?”
As far as Vietnamese vegetable soup with vermicelli goes, Pho Clement 2’s is about the same as the rest. The noodles were a little mushy – to be fair, a product of photography delays and the broken ritual of pho. The vegetables were blanched and flavorful, and the broth was serviceable. The soup tasted good; yet, tasting good just isn’t good enough. This is my omnivore’s dilemma: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, where cows are grazing.
It says a lot that the two most exciting parts of my meal were the fried rice and the television. The rice, a menu afterthought, arrived with such low expectations and exceeded them with such style that I will probably be ordering fried rice in restaurants for weeks of vegetarianism to come. Peas and carrots belong in fried rice, in my opinion, and thanks to Pho Clement 2’s version, black pepper has joined that list. As is the case with all my favorite fried rice dishes, little clumps of unadulterated, soft white rice hid within the greasy, crispy pile like lumps in mashed potatoes.
“Do you know who that guy is?” my waiter, a middle-aged, impossibly thin man, asked while pointing to the television.
“Charles Bronson,” I said, having spent my entire meal trying to figure out what film was playing on AMC.
“He’s one of those guys from old movies. He shouldn’t be on television. Why is he on television?”
My only answer was a shrug, which only made him more insistent. “He shouldn’t be on television,” my waiter repeated as he walked away. Maybe he mistook my shrug for something like, “It’s okay that Death Wish 3 is on TV.”
If that’s the case, I owe my waiter an apology, because Death Wish 3 shouldn’t be on television – just as a television in a Vietnamese restaurant shouldn’t be showing AMC, and just as pho shouldn’t be vegetarian. It just feels wrong.
Pho Clement 2
5423 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121