Austin PhoFor several years, I lived in North Austin, as in north of 183, even. Didn’t last long that far from my waterfront, beach house trailer park, but I did it for love. Or one of those emotions that looks like love. That was a failed experiment.
I would suggest that it is best if I follow the exact same advice I give others. Not sure I will, but it was worth it trying to remind myself.
“Heed thy good counsel, boy.”
Don’t move for love.
One of the discoveries I made, up in that — it was a sketchy neighborhood at the time — the people living downstairs from me were busted for hard drugs. Looked out my window one morning to see agents with DEA in yellow lettering on their windbreakers, crawling through the dumpster.
I left North Austin shortly thereafter, decamped for southern climes and sunnier times. But that tenure in North Austin gave me two opportunities, one was I started to receive a real stipend for my authorial work as an astrology writer. (Got paid for writing horoscopes.) Then, merely as an adjunct to the location itself, I was exposed to “Pho,” and I have no clue how to properly say it.
There was, is, was? There was a local chain — think like Taco Bell — only it was for Vietnamese, with the term, “Pho” figuring prominently in the name. While I found three different noodle shops in that neighborhood, that one from the chain became a favorite.
Years later, I found another branch, same tree, in Deep South Austin (off Oltorf). That one location — on the south side — introduced that notion of cognitive dissonance, wherein there was clearly Austin-Asian heritage in the front of the restaurant, but equally clear was the loud, accordion-driven conjunto blaring from the kitchen.
One similarity between Asian and Mexican cuisine, so I found? There’s a certain ability and even an innate desire, to use the whole animal — in the soup, the stew, the broth, or maybe, just in the chorizo.
The first time, I don’t recall the exact moment of the first time, but I got used to dining in a place, that lonely year so far north in Austin, I got used to dining in place where I was the only — white guy? Caucasian? Straight, white guy, I kind of stood out, other than the obvious characteristic that I was substantially taller than most of the other patrons. This was a time when Austin was a nascent tech-hub, but not the burgeoning giant it is now. Perhaps that’s evidence of roots; I am unsure.
I was a weekday regular, tending towards a large bowl of pho, and I preferred the “all in” version, with rare steak, sausage, meatball, fatty tendon, and something called “Bible Tripe.” I have no idea what it was, besides some kind of animal intestinal lining, but that’s a guess. Slightly chewy, and the whole bowl was served with a side platter of fresh basil or cilantro, whichever was available, as well as sliced jalapeño peppers and bean sprouts. The soup itself was some kind of aromatic broth with noddles, and other stuff.
The presentation hasn’t changed, too much, not across several different locations. For me, with an iced “Cafe Su Dat,” I could make it a meal for the day. More about my experiences with Vietnamese Coffee elsewhere.
Can’t say I ever went back to that suburban triangle of delights. There were two, three noodle shops when I left, as well as an “Asian Grocery,” which I can only describe as spooky, in a good way, but it had tea, incense, various pickled animal parts, Feng Sui accessories, and row after row of food stuffs I cannot identify. Butcher in the back, and there a certain essence, remember this was Old Austin, and the ethnic striations were more layered, then.
That’s where I got exposed, and then, over the following year, learned to appreciate, then thrive on the nourishment in a bowl of “Pho.”
Some years back, when I started the semi-whatever gig at Austin’s Rock Shop, I found that the old concert venue, South Park Meadows, was paved over, with a BBQ outlier in one corner, and some kind of an Austin Pho place in the strip center.
To me, it’s now a rare treat, to stop and get some “Pho.” My last trip to and from Austin, cold winter’s day — cold winter’s day South Texas style — required a stop for something that felt hearty, seemed healthy, and tasted good. Seems like the shopping centers are sprawling, mutating, metastasizing, gobbling up formerly healthy highway verge, paving paradise. Confused, at first, we eventually landed on the place, and had some lunch.
What I recalled, back in the day, I could eat a large bowl of Austin Pho, and have a fancy Vietnamese coffee, for easily less than ten bucks, and that would include a generous tip. Feed two for under $15, right?
Not like that, not so much now. Then, too, there’s the confusion of cultures, and the cuisine, I was taught that it was “Vietnamese,” while the Thai Ice Tea, was from, as the name implies, Thailand. Neighbors, maybe. The same? Not really, like East Coast/West Coast?
The ultimate proof, though is in the steaming bowl of soup and noodles. I would also judge, based on years of experience, with the way the little side-saddle of fresh herbs is served. I like it with three or four slices of Jalapeño in addition to a good spring of basil, and some wilted, winter cilantro.
They managed all of that, and the soup itself, after scanning the menu a few times, I found the “everything” bowl.
Over the years, though, I developed a certain taste, and since this is a menu item, I found that the “rare round steak,” and what used to be, for me, “bible tripe,” those were the two best items to add to the soup. The rare ‘steak’ was raw until it hit the hot soup, and that cooked the meat. The meat was thin slices of some kind of cow part, and I never have determined where, or what, the tripe came from. Don’t care. Tasty and delicious — isn’t that all that matters?
My experiences with Austin Pho started in way far north Austin, or it was, way far north Austin, more than twenty years ago. I lived adjacent to an “Asian Area,” or Pacific Rim, or whatever the correct term is, I’m not sure, and I will probably irritate some group with my feigned ignorance. No, really, I’m not sure of the correct term.
The taste of the pho itself seems to be dependent upon some secret recipe and certain herbs, spices, I’m not sure, as that basil adds a certain kind of aromatic flavor, but even, then, it’s not overpowering.
I can’t be a proper judge, but the ethnic flavor was certainly missing in new South Austin. Happy for the diversity, sad to see changes.
Then, back to the Asian Grocery, there are certain elements always present. The “Fat Buddha,” usually a gold color, at the entrance. Something to break up and welcome the flow of people and prosperity. I am no great Fang-Sway guy myself. But I recognize the efforts.
It’s been some years, and I found that echoing back, and then revisiting, brought back that flood of memories. Old neighborhoods, predates my South Austin tenure, flavors that broadened my horizons, and ethnic diversity where, once again, I was clearly a minority.
Always as a backbeat to my work, always that sense that I’m a stranger in my own, home town. I’m just a visitor, not wholly rooted in one place.
The Austin Pho was better this time, but that might be me, but I think it had something to do with the chewy stuff in the soup.