Pho is me

Dinner for one: Less than $10

Rating any particular member of the prodigious constellation of Vietnamese pho restaurants on Stockton Boulevard seems a bit like judging an Olympic luge contest. The difference in time between the first and fourth place lugers in such a competition may be something like hundredths of a second; the difference between the best and worst of the pho shacks may come down to slight variations in the amount of star anise in the broth, or whether they give you saw-leaf herb or perilla with your soup. They all have virtually the same menu and prices, the same distinct atmosphere of atmosphere-lessness, and the same “no smoking” signs under which you may feel free to smoke. Why, then, do I consistently find myself headed to Bolsa and not anywhere else when I’ve got the pho urge on me? I guess it comes down to a blend of consistency on their part, and a tendency toward nostalgia on mine.

You see, Bolsa was my first pho. Years ago, I was working at this Italian restaurant with a Vietnamese guy named Tony, and he invited me to go and eat pho with him, since at the time I had no idea what it was. We went into this dumpy little place where the menu was written on the walls in Vietnamese, and the sounds of spoken Vietnamese swirled around the room exuberantly. In one corner Doogie Howser held forth, and everywhere Vietnamese men were smoking triple-5s. I was enchanted, naturally. What was I missing out on? I let Tony order for me, a large “dac biet” or “special” bowl of pho and an iced Vietnamese espresso. Moments later a massive and steaming bowl of soup landed in front of me and, really, I didn’t know how to approach it—so I was determined to watch and learn from Tony.

I think it’s at least possible that there are people out there who have yet to experience the sensual and culinary experience of pho, so let me pause briefly to explain it as I understand it, and if you know already you can just skim. Put simply, pho is a beef and rice noodle soup that originated in northern Vietnam. The soup begins as a subtle and delicious broth usually made from oxtail and other beef bones, and is lightly infused with spices such as star anise, clove, ginger, cinnamon and coriander. To this rich broth are added a heap of long, flat rice noodles, and the customer gets to choose which particular cuts of beef are added. Various available meats include tripe, tendon, eye of round, braised flank steak and others, or you can forgo beef altogether and have it with chicken, or with wontons and barbecued pork. Accompanying this is a platter of bean sprouts, lime wedges, sliced jalapeños and various herbs such as basil, mint, cilantro, perilla and saw-leaf herb, which you add to match your personal preferences. Finally, hoisin sauce and a chili paste are provided to fine-tune the broth exactly to your own specifications. Something about the deliciously nuanced broth coupled with the opportunity to manipulate your own sensory experience makes pho one of the great culinary creations of the world. What’s more, pho can fill a number of culinary roles.

If it’s super hot outside, eat a steaming bowl of pho for a sauna-like purge. If it’s freezing cold and overcast, eat pho to warm up. And if you have a raging hangover, there’s nothing quite like pho to set you right again.

But back to the story: So I watched Tony attentively. In the right hand, chopsticks. In the left, a spoon. And in a small saucer on the side, Vietnamese ketchup. When you take a splooge of hoisin sauce and mix it with a splooge of chili paste, you have Vietnamese ketchup. This you keep by your bowl to dip your meat in for a heightened burst of flavor. Sip broth with your left; slurp noodles and other solids with your right. Enjoy. It’s easy. Let your coffee drip in peace while you eat, then stir it and pour it over ice for a nice finish to a great $5 meal.

I entreat you all to give Bolsa a try. It seems to me to be one of the most consistently good places in the pho stronghold of the city.