The Best Bowl of Pho
The Best Bowl of Pho
We were at Pho Maisonneuve, a restaurant fifteen minutes away from our apartment in Montreal. I had been staring at the menu indecisively. Throughout the day, I had been excited about the veggie pho, the best one I’ve had in several years. When we first tried the restaurant earlier this month, I had been pleasantly surprised by the strong flavors and aromas of lemongrass, cinnamon, and star anise, unlike the watery broths that I had expected. I was even more surprised when the owner - whom I called chu, the literal Vietnamese word for uncle but one I used to connote mister - asked if I wanted the banh canh to be vegetarian as well. His vegetarian soup did not need to be enhanced with hoisin or Sriracha.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the sweet and sour tofu and rice dish. When he was still alive, my father almost always ordered the sweet and sour chicken from a nearby Chinese restaurant. I couldn’t remember the last time he ate that dish. Towards the end of his life, he had trouble swallowing and choked almost after every bite.
My thoughts turned to my own surgery tomorrow. Oral reconstructive surgery, to rebuild my gum and teeth impacted by constant clenching and chronic vomiting. Both caused by anxiety. I already had my first surgery in the spring. It was a long process to rebuild the decay and collapse inside of my mouth. A lot of cutting, sewing, and blood. It had been painful and difficult to enjoy food. But this time, I would be taking the prescribed steroids and painkillers. I was hoping I’d recover quicker.
Simultaneous mental images of my frail father and being on the operating chair sickened me. The familiar anxiety tightening my chest made me feel like I was about to throw up. I hastily took a sip of my ice water. My hand shook slightly.
Chu returned to our table to take our orders. I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese. Chu smiled as he repeated the selection. I looked at his fingers. My husband had first noticed that he was missing the top of his fingers, and wondered if it was from the war.
I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese.
‘You didn’t want pho?’ my husband asked. I had wanted to eat it before my big surgery. It was the last meal before I would have to rest at home and eat soups, puddings, or any soft foods that did not require too much chewing.
‘There’ll be a next time,’ I said, looking at the empty fish tank across from our table. A few people began to trickle into the small restaurant. We were the first ones to arrive. The sports channel was on, but its audio was replaced by the soft music chu had turned on. There were no lyrics, but I recognized the melodies as ‘90s Vietnamese karaoke music. At times, I sang, badly but quietly, along to the music. I watched chu move between the bar and register area, to the kitchen, and to the dining room table. We only ever saw him in the front of house, but we heard a woman’s voice in the kitchen.
‘Here,’ chu said in his soft voice, placing our orders in front of us. My tofu was crispy and golden, but it was my husband’s large bowl of soup that seemed most inviting. I could smell the contrast of sweetness and spice. Chu placed the small dish of bean sprouts, basil, lime, and extra chili peppers. He knew my husband liked his dish extremely spicy.
‘Cam on,’ I thanked him sincerely. I had suddenly lost my appetite, but tried to eat anyway. The sweet and sour sauce was standard.
‘They must grill the chicken with lemongrass,’ my husband said in wonderment. The broth was so red from the extra pepper, as he had requested. He drank the soup thoughtfully, as if trying to profile all of the ingredients.
‘Is it spicy?’ I asked, chewing slowly. Eating with a retainer in my mouth was difficult.
‘Try some,’ he offered, sliding the bowl towards me. I eagerly took a generous spoonful of the red broth. It was more spicy than I usually liked my soups, but the obvious lemongrass was present. I greedily helped myself to more spoonfuls.
‘It’s a bit sweet,’ my husband continued.
‘Is there some tamarind?’ I asked.
‘Oh! Could be.’
Chu was setting two bowls of pho to the French-speaking diners seated a table away from us. He came back to check on us, and I asked if there was tamarind in his soup. I couldn’t remember the word for tamarind in Vietnamese and tried to articulate its flavors.
‘Tamarind,’ chu repeated, trying to understand my profile description. ‘No. Just the usual spicy sweetness and some citrus.’
‘He’s trying to figure out all of the ingredients in the soup,’ I said. We turned to look at him.
‘Really good,’ my husband said comically, in his poor Vietnamese. Chu laughed and repeated ‘really good’.
‘Are you happy with your meal?’ my husband asked. We were walking home. The sidewalk was still icy, and we were careful to avoid slipping.
‘I should have ordered what I wanted,’ I sighed. ‘Maybe we can go back once I recover.’
‘Chu reminds me a lot of your dad,’ he said.
‘Sad and quiet. He doesn’t talk a lot. Only when he has to.’
We were in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at my family’s house. My father’s room had been redecorated and most of his possessions were gone. Some stored away, some donated. But everything else looked the same. His old vinyl recliner was still in the exact spot it had been almost two years ago.
I wasn’t hungry, but had promised Ma that we would eat lunch with her. For the last month, Ma kept asking what I wanted to eat, what she should cook.
‘Oh, but you just had mouth surgery,’ she’d say. ‘I need to make you something easy to eat. Soup! Eat soup! You’ve been craving pho!’
I told her about Pho Maisonneuve, and how remarkable the broths tasted. That even my husband, who doesn’t like pho, speaks highly of it.
‘Must be made with chicken bones,’ Ma said. When I told her I’ve had both the chicken broth and the veggie version, she exclaimed, ‘you eat non-vegetarian broth? Why didn’t you say so! I don’t like making veggie broth!’
I set a bowl on the wooden table. By habit, I sat on the chair at the left end of the table, where I used to sit next to my father. Because he sat in a wheelchair, it was more accessible to park it at the end of the dining table. An empty chair replaced my father’s spot. I moved to that chair, to face away from his recliner. I found myself staring at the family altar table, where a framed black and white photo of my father was displayed at the corner.
‘Eat,’ Ma said in English. Sitting next to my husband, she explained that she had made really good chicken soup for us.
‘It’s so much food, Ma!’ my husband said. He looked at me in faux horror. Ma had chosen two very large porcelain bowls. His bowl was topped with chicken, and mine with about two pounds of fried tofu.
As Ma chattered happily to my husband, I tried some of my mother’s soup. For the past few years, her soup had been watery, but she attributed it to the tasteless veggies and soup. Her soup that day had been different. Meaty and more savory, but it lacked something. I noticed that she used store bought lettuce, forgoing fresh basil and mint.
‘Is this lettuce, Ma?’ I asked in Vietnamese.
‘It is,’ she responded. ‘I was too lazy to go get fresh greens from the Vietnamese market. And I forgot the bean sprouts. Is it bad? Is that why you’re not eating?’ Ma’s face turned serious. She was looking older and more frail than last year. Her hair was whiter than I remembered. She had more difficulty walking without panting.
‘No, it’s not bad at all, Ma,’ I said.
‘Why aren’t you eating then?’
‘It’s a lot of food, and it’s hard to eat with my…’ I smiled, to show her my retainer. I had a few more surgeries to undergo before I could get rid of it.
‘Are you still in pain?’
‘No, no. Don’t worry about me.’ I took a big bite of my noodles and continued to eat despite a lack of appetite. She seemed satisfied and switched back to English, to continue her conversation with my husband. I ate silently and listened, my gaze often returning to the photo of my father.