This week’s question in the Rocket City Bloggers’ Year Long Blogging Challenge: what is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
I’ll take a little bit of a different read on the question, just because I don’t think I can name a single meal as the most memorable. I’ve had too many meals that were memorable in different ways and for different reasons. A few that come to mind:
- In September or October 1993, about 3:45 on a Sunday morning, I joined a group of my closest friends at the Waffle House in front of the Chevrolet dealership on University. “Bring me five fried eggs and a bottle of Tabasco!” I drunkenly announced. Those were some of the most delicious eggs I ever had in my life. But sadly (deservedly), I think it was about 4:00 Monday afternoon before I felt human again.
- In May 1995, I had a broiled triggerfish sandwich for lunch. What made it memorable was that we were 35 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. I had caught, cleaned, and cooked the fish absolutely as quickly as it was possible to do so. To taste a piece of fish that was swimming in the Gulf 30 minutes earlier is memorable indeed.
- In 1998, Lea and I had two incredible Italian meals at a place called Carmela’s in Williamsburg, Virginia. My sister, who lives there now, tells us it’s been gone for several years.
- I miss all sorts of things my mom made that no one else ever gets quite the same as she did. I miss her ham and bean soup. I miss her apricot nectar cake. I miss her fresh green beans.
The single meal I will talk about in more detail is memorable because it recast my entire palate going forward, exposing me to several delicious new cuisines about which I knew nearly nothing and continuing to exert a great deal of influence on my choices. In late 2002, at Saigon Bistro on Country Club Avenue in Huntsville, I had my first bowl of pho.
Pho is a rice noodle soup that is the de facto national dish of Vietnam. Its two signature features are a long and complex list of spices that deliver its unique base flavor; and a plate of garnishes to be added to the soup to taste at the table, right before it is eaten. A typical plate of garnishes includes cilantro/coriander, Thai basil, mung bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, and a lime wedge. Hoisin sauce and sriracha sauce are popular additions as well. I generally do all of the above except hoisin. Crush the fresh spices between your fingers to release their flavors.
Pho comes in several varieties, with most of the difference being the meat in the recipe. The first bowl I had was pho dac biet, which is the most deluxe established version there is. That’s a beef soup with meatball, thin slices of steak, tripe, and tendon.
I had that one more time, and I liked it, but it’s not my favorite. I switched to pho tai nam for several years. That’s thin slices of steak and brisket. Today I split roughly evenly between pho tai (pictured above; that’s just the thin slices of steak, after I’ve added everything to the soup and just before I mix) and pho ga (chicken, pictured below before “assembly,” with the plate of garnishes adjacent). The only difference between how I dress these soups is that I squeeze a little more lime into pho tai.
Pho (and by the way, we Americans usually say “foe,” but it’s more properly pronounced “fuh”) is a unique and addictive experience. I estimate that I’ve averaged three bowls a month for the past decade. It’s a little pocket of joy in the middle of the day. It’s affordable—you’ll be out for $10—and though it’s not diet food, it’s eminently defensible in a sensible nutrition plan.
It’s an entire new wonderland of taste, for which I had no previous close analog.
And that’s really why that first bowl of pho is what I count as my most memorable meal. It inspired me to explore not only Vietnamese cuisine, but also Thai, Japanese, and Korean (just starting!) cuisines in depth. Before that day in 2002, I’d learned most of what I knew about Asian cuisines at American Chinese restaurants. I can certainly still have a good experience at an American Chinese place, but now that I know there’s so much that’s more interesting out there, I usually lean in one of those directions.
I’m not a fan of the big city, and I don’t anticipate ever living anywhere that is unambiguously large. The Huntsville metropolitan area is closing on half a million people, and that seems to be the smallest order of magnitude sufficient to support some mass of Vietnamese, Thai, and authentic Japanese restaurants. I’m pretty much locked in to never being any more than 15 or 20 miles from such.
‘Round these parts, I recommend Saigon in Madison for pho, with Viet Huong in Huntsville doing an acceptable but not quite as good job with it. For now they’re the only two Vietnamese places in town, which most days means that if you can’t get there by 11:15, you’re better off waiting until 12:45.
One more thing—pho is properly eaten with chopsticks and an Asian soup spoon, and until you get several bowls’ worth of practice, you’re going to make a guaranteed mess of your shirt. As coarse as it looks, I recommend unfolding and tucking a napkin into your shirt collar for your first few pho outings. Enjoy!