Even though now it makes more sense that I am obsessed with pho – because my Dad lives in Vietnam, because I have very real memories attached to it – at the beginning I don’t know what got me hooked. But I’ve been obsessed for a long time. It’s my comfort food, it’s my hangover food, it’s the one thing in this world that ALWAYS makes me feel better.
When I lived in Sydney, for uni, I used to go to a place on King St called Pho 236. Funnily enough, my mum lives right next to it now but back then it was a veryyy long trek from the suburbs. It’s since changed hands and has gotten pretty rubbish, but even back then it was not the best. It was average, it was cheap, and in those days it was pretty much the only Vietnamese in a sea of Thai (thankfully that has changed). But I bloody loved it. I remember meeting a random in London once years back and bonding over Pho 236 for what was probably an embarrassingly long time.
I’ve been eating pho for years but only really tried it properly in the last two years. Why? Because I was a vegetarian for a very long time. So really, I had been eating a vegetable noodle soup for all those years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – vegetarian versions of things are great. But the point of pho is of course the bone broth, the stock. Of course you can make a beautiful ‘veggie pho’ by boiling mushrooms for hours but let’s be real, I was probably eating a supermarket stock cube the majority of the time. I remember a friend of mine saying that eating a tlayuda without asiento (lard) on it was like “Trying to watch a movie without eyes”. Probably one of the worst analogies I’ve ever heard, but it stayed with me. Maybe his terrible analogy was what triggered me to start being more flexitarian than vegetarian in the first place? Who can really say. Now my go-to pho is a veggie pho using the original beef broth.
I’ve had years without pho, mainly while living in Latin America (and Wales!), but as soon as I set foot back in a country with pho it’s the first thing I would seek. I remember driving an hour out of the way and making an elaborate detour once in Houston to get a bowl of pho on a visit from Mexico. Just about every country I’ve been to, I will find pho somewhere. Usually more than once.
Pho has been with me through thick and thin. When I think about my time in Toronto, my abiding memory is cycling through the streets late at night to Pho Pasteur after a few drinks. Pho Pasteur is open 24 hours but we only ever went there at night. Those are my happiest memories of Toronto, and my happiest memories of my last relationship. We spent hours and hours and hours in Pho Pasteur, more often than not drunk, never before 2am. Garishly lit, not friendly but fast, we would take all our visitors there, we would linger over cooling broth, talking shit, laughing, sometimes fighting, sometimes even crying.
When I was mourning the end of that relationship last summer in London I ate an OBSCENE volume of pho in Hackney, and I wondered sometimes if I was soothing myself or punishing myself. I even had a notebook where I kept ratings and reviews about all of the pho in the city – I’m not sure what I planned to do with it, but I did it anyway. The vast majority of times when I eat pho now it’s by myself, very often hungover. And even though I love cooking, I never ever try to make it. I always eat it out. It’s a thing I do for myself. Self care. Some people get manicures, and I eat pho I guess. It’s more than just food, it’s medicine. It’s a constant in my life.
It’s crazy to say pho is the food that makes me feel like home, since I am in no way Vietnamese. But it is that to me. Is that cultural appropriation? I’m only half joking with that question. The food that maybe should make me feel like home is something like vegemite, or plain white rice, or flan (mum), or a fry up, or oatcakes (dad). But it’s not, it’s pho that resonates with my soul. Good pho can come from surprising places. For example, most of the best pho I have had has not been in Vietnam. In Vietnam they are actually kind of tired of pho, it’s kind of like pad thai in Thailand. It’s passé, it’s obvious, and they have many more interesting foods. I get it, and I love ALL Vietnamese food, but I still want pho all the time.
New York is not a great city for pho. I suspected this after trying a few spots, and someone who has lived here for years recently confirmed my suspicions by confessing that NYC is in fact not great for pho. Damn. Strike against NYC. I’ll keep trying though. I have no choice, I can’t live without it.