Yesterday I felt depleted and lackluster and in need of a meal, so I went to Lemongrass for soup. It is a downmarket place when compared to Eric Banh’s joints that are quite nearby, and I figured the only reason for its survival would be its food. A month earlier I’d eaten fried fish with tamarind sauce that had tasted very good to me so it seemed a plausible spot for a hot and restorative meal when necessary—and right now seemed very necessary. The wind was raw and I had prudently worn my rain coat which wasn’t warm enough. I walked in and ordered my food, feeling happy that I was given a seat near the streetside window. When the waitress offered to pull down the shade to spare me from the tanning quality of sunlight, I felt hopeful. If she believed darkness was a positive asset, then maybe the cook would believe in serving the true food of Vietnam.
I know nothing at all about how Vietnamese food should taste, only that the ingredients need to be very fresh and that fish sauce is as much of a staple in that country as it is in Thailand. I come to it as most people approach Thai food in America. If it pleases my palate, then I call it good.
I’d always avoided pho after my first few bowls of it, deciding it was far too subtle for me, and ate bun bo hue instead, which is hearty and flavorful and packs a punch of heat. The first bowl of it that I ever ate had a jolt of fish paste, which I really liked and have never encountered again. Still it pleased me more than pho, which tasted like nothing at all but the herbs that accompanied it. “Too refined for me,” I decided.
Then my friend Kim came to town and we went to eat Eric Banh’s acclaimed pho at Ba Bar. After several spoonsful she told me politely, “This is good soup, but it isn’t good pho. There’s no spice in this broth.”
I was surprised because I had never realized that pho’s broth should taste like anything other than slightly salted stock. When Kim told me it should have notes of things like cinnamon as its anchor, I felt cheated and when I saw that Lemongrass had a five-spice chicken soup, I ordered it.
It wasn’t pho and the broth was a vegetable one, but it did say five-spice and I felt optimistic. I sipped my tamarind soda and looked at the other patrons. Few of them were white and that made me even happier. I smiled at the plate of mint, basil, jalapeno pepper, and bean sprouts, with its generous slice of lime and remembered the Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong that had told me they had no lime when I had requested it for my meal. This place had already passed that hurdle successfully.
My soup arrived in a bowl that resembled a small basin and I covered it with the herbs, sniffing happily as they released their scents. I stirred it all with my chopsticks and found three large chunks of roasted chicken with its once-crisp skin still attached. It detached from the bone easily, dark meat that hadn’t become hard and dry. It all tasted quite comforting, but where were the five-spice flavors?
They weren’t there, or if they were, they were far too delicate for me to detect. What I had in my bowl was typically Seattle pho, a light broth with a clump of rice noodles that clung together in chummy fashion at the bottom of my bowl. The difference was the roasted chicken.
It tasted good, although toward the end I wished I had chili sauce on my table to jazz up broth that had become tepid. But I ate it all and assured the boy who came to clear away the dishes that he had probably saved my life.
I left a sizable tip and went away feeling fed. Whether I was well fed or not, I have no way of knowing. I only know I was given a meal in a bowl that tasted good and made me feel much better than I had before I ate it.
And isn’t this the best that we can ask of a restaurant, especially an unpretentious neighborhood joint with low prices? In some ways I would say yes. In other ways I feel cheated. I would bet that every cook in a Seattle Vietnamese restaurant goes home and puts spices in their pho, ones that I found in a cookbook on my bookshelf. Pho contains a cinnamon stick, coriander and fennel seeds, anise and cardamom pods, and whole cloves, tied up in cheesecloth and simmered for an hour in the broth. They can be bought in a little package at a local Vietnamese grocery. I know that’s true because I bought them myself at Viet Wah recently to put in a Thai dish that I made at home.
Even when Vietnamese restaurants first appeared on US shores, these spices were available, but I’ve never detected any of those familiar flavors in a bowl of pho. They are all well known to American palates. Why aren’t they used? Is it because US eaters associate those spices with pies and recoiled from them in soup?
But then if eaters don’t know they should be there, does it matter if they are missing? As someone who has never cared for pho, I say yes. If I enjoyed the taste of salted water that is augmented with a handful of fresh herbs and the meat that floats in the broth, I’d say who cares?
And this is the question for me: is it wrong to criticize Americanized Asian dishes? They serve a purpose and make people happy. What’s not to love? But I do think it’s unfair that I now have to search for pho that has retained its traditional flavors in a city with acres of places that serve a watered down version of the real thing.