Pho: The New Comfort Food (and Medicinal Cure)

The Accidental Midwesterner

Everyone has their own sickness remedy; for most of us it was probably passed down from our parents. After all, it was they who were tasked with fixing us when we were too young to know how to do anything outside of play and eat. I guess the one imparted upon me was chicken noodle soup or, when appetite failed me, straight-up chicken broth in a mug. I’d be burrowed under three blankets, dropping cracker crumbs all over the sofa and carpet, and Mom would drop a large mug of broth beside me on a coaster. “Drink,” she’d say and I would oblige. Maybe it didn’t like the texture of the canned noodle, or eating would require removing myself from my cocoon; either way, I found a warmth, literally and figuratively, in that chicken soup.

This was the routine for years, until I moved out of my parents’ home and had to take care of myself. To be honest, I wasn’t that good at it—taking care of myself. The constant quest for social revelry, especially in a city like New Orleans, usually resulted in a stead self-medication of beer and bourbon, and morning-afters of Gatorade and greasy spoon grub. Amazingly, this vicious cycle seemed to ward off actual sickness, and when friends and co-workers came down with the seasonal flu, allergy, or whatever plague was trendy that year, it usually skipped me. I liked to think that my addition of alcohol as a fifth food group was the catalyst for my relative well-being. We’ll see how that holds up later in life.

Years later, as the late nights faded only to be replaced by early mornings leadened with the weight of responsibilities, and I came to enjoy beer and whiskey for its character and nuance as much as what it did to my mindset, I would find myself with an illness that wasn’t self-inflicted. And I kept hearing about this thing, this food with some kind of magical cure that also happened to taste amazing. It was called pho.

“Fo?”

“No, pho.”

“But, there’s no “uh” vowel in there.”

I can be a dumb American at times.

* * * *

New Orleans has a large Vietnamese community, built up from the end of the Vietnam War when immigrants came en masse to the city. The fishing community was a draw, and they didn’t seem to be minded by the sticky air that blankets the region for large swathes of the year. Either downriver in Plaquemines Parish or in the eastern part of Orleans Parish was where they made their homes, their businesses, and their food. In fact, one of the barriers to the cuisine was its locale; Vietnamese restaurants were almost exclusively on the West Bank of the Mississippi or in New Orleans East, over the Industrial Canal and seemingly cutoff from the traditional rhythms of the city. It was an actual excursion to eat this type of food for those of us who lived in New Orleans and regardless of the small geographic size of the city and its suburbs, New Orleanians don’t often like to leave their neighborhood and crossing a small body of water is akin to visiting a foreign country. However, because of this, when the time came to cross that mighty water, I would always pencil in a trip for some pho or vermicelli noodles.

Pho Tai Gan at LD Pho

My favorite was Pho Tau Bay, on the Westbank Expressway in Gretna. It was in a dilapidated shopping center with not much left in the way of foot traffic; if you were pulling your car into the lot, you were going to Pho Tau Bay. There was no way I was making the trek across the river and coming back across without stopping. On one occasion I crossed over to attend a birthday party, had lunch there, and an hour later got takeout at Pho Tau before I drove back over the bridge, the smell of broth filling my car. Long before In-N-Out became a requirement when I landed in California, I was doing prep work on a small scale every time I went over the GNO Bridge to Jefferson Parish.

After Katrina, the desire for Vietnamese was too great to ignore and slowly more and more places began popping up in the heart of the city. The more upscale MoPho took up residence in Mid-City, as did Mint Modern in Uptown and Ba Chi in Carrollton. Magasin kept its food simple but within a bright, airy setting on Magazine Street, and more recently setting up shop in the Warehouse District. Even Pho Tau Bay came over, reversing the journey so many of us had made over the years and plopped down on Tulane Avenue near downtown. Though by that time, I had found another space, mostly due to proximity, where I would plop down for righteous Vietnamese pho.

Namese opened up right off the I-10 exit that took me home after a long workday. It started as a curiosity, a space where I could hopefully get my pho fix without having to make a special journey. The first few times I visited were during the warmer months—of which we have a majority of in New Orleans—so my tried-and-true method of Judgment By Pho would have to wait. The Pork Vermicelli was good, and their spring rolls in peanut sauce scrumptious enough to rival my beloved Pho Tau Bay.

Then, one night while working late, I got sick. Sinuses raging, head pounding, fever spiking. It may have been a sharp weather change, allergies, who knows; whatever caused the illness, didn’t matter. It had me, and I struggled through the remainder of the day until I could head home, stopping for some Gatorade along the way and maybe some cold meds.

The drive home was about 15 minutes—5 to 7 on the interstate and then the neighborhood roads to the house. At the exit, I would normally take the south approach. Then, something struck a chord, a memory buried not too far in the recesses of my brain. I changed signals, and went into the north approach lane, and after a loop onto Airline Highway, my puffy eyes made out the Namese sign at the intersection. Praying that they were still open, I pulled into the parking lot, wheezing through blurred vision, and tugged the door.

They were still serving, and of course pho was no problem. I got the simplest version—sliced brisket, so thin it practical cooks as soon as it hits the broth. The staff also did this great thing where they separate everything, so as to keep everything fresh; noodles, then garnish, then beef in one container, the broth still simmering in another. Usually even a small order of pho is enough for two helpings, and this separation method keeps everything fresh.

At home, a sweatshirt on to force a fever break, I mixed a little of everything in a bowl and added a little sriracha. I could barely taste it, and normally spending money on good food that you can’t enjoy is one of the saddest experiences in life. But I knew what the elixir was doing inside my body, and that the remainder in the takeout container could be enjoyed the following day, with a better disposition and a clearer head. And it would be much better than chicken noodle soup.

* * * *

Chicago is blessed with a number of Vietnamese restaurants, though unfortunately not in every neighborhood. Thankfully, mine has a handful to choose from. Incidentally, my favorite is the one closest to my home. LD Pho has quite a broad menu—arguably the largest of any I’ve seen in both New Orleans and Chicago. It’s quite the irony considering the size of the restaurant space; it’s not cramped but also not large, and the open kitchen doesn’t lead one to believe they are spoiled for storage. Maybe that helps with freshness, the lack of space necessitating a constant replenishment of inventory.

As opposed to my previous life in New Orleans, when I order Vietnamese at LD Pho it’s almost always the restaurant’s namesake dish. The long, cold winters are inviting to imbibe on a hot soup. Ramen may have become a kind of Asian soup célebre here, but as much as I love the heartiness of tonkontsu broth and its chewy noodles, pho remains my preference. It satiated me, sustained me, and healed me for so long; once something fills that space in your soul, it’s hard to replace it. That, and it’s just so damn good.