Why do we love pho so much? I remember when I was a kid I used to call it “everything” soup, because it appeared to contain pretty much everything. I’ve heard it called “weird noodle stuff,” “the stuff with the bean sprouts,” and my personal fave, “the limey-noodle-sprout thing in the great big bowl.” I took someone out to eat at a local Vietnamese place a while back who, after a few big bites, proclaimed, “this has a lot of vegetables—it’s like a liquid salad.”
I was fortunate in my teens to have been part of a cultural exchange program, and I lived with a Vietnamese family for six months, during which time I learned a good-sized chunk of their culture, and plenty about their cuisine. They actually ate pho for breakfast, and far from the short stacks and sausage links I was used to, I found that a savory soup—filled with beef broth, opaque rice noodles, thin slices of steak, tripe, brisket and flank, green and white onions, mint and basil leaves, lime wedges, bean sprouts, and chile peppers—made a helluva good start to the day.
I’d heard some severely good things about Café Da Lat before having lunch there. I would have to say that the somewhat meek and unassuming building at the corner of Central and Palomas is quiet and classy inside, and home to a distinctive and creative menu of Vietnamese favorites and dishes so interesting that they should be studied for hours. Misspellings on the menu are rampant, but words like “fondu,” “waffal” and “tamarine” are close enough to be understood.
My first foray into the menu was the disappointing frog leg appetizer ($6.25), crusted in a heavy, bland flour breading with meat that was slightly overcooked and chewy. The side of nuoc cham (dipping sauce made from water, sugar, fish sauce, lime, garlic, chiles and green onion), however, was legit. I saved it to pour over my rice later.
Between courses I went to use the ladies’ room only to discover there wasn’t one. Sort of. There are two doors, one with a men’s room sign, and one door with no designation. I’ve had my share of not-the-loo antics over the years, but since I was sober this time, I could deduce that the unmarked door was either the phantom women's room, a utility closet or a back door to the kitchen. I was lucky. Door No. 2 was the washroom after all—the sign was simply affixed to the inside of the door. It probably would have been more helpful on the other side, but I had no time to ponder this fact as I couldn’t find the handle to flush the dang toilet. I looked everywhere, patting the ceramic tank down like a felon, until I noticed a tiny metal knob on top of the tank. I pushed it and turned it and then pulled it upward until I heard a resounding whoosh. All better and, after a thorough hand-washing, back to the table I went.
I decided on two different main courses for lunch: eggplant with ground pork ($7.50) and a departure from my usual pho, the seafood in sour soup ($10.25). I also ordered a glass of Vietnamese coffee ($2), which seems to be an acquired taste. (But if you're smart, you'll acquire the taste for it.)
The coffee came out first—a small but important detail. The tiny metal filter needs ample time to lay droplet after droplet of dark, chicory-laden coffee into a glass filled with sweetened condensed milk. Even if you don't care for the flavor of Vietnamese coffee, you'll enjoy watching the tiny, meditative show it puts on.
Next came the eggplant. Its presentation was nicely done with a molded pat of white rice topped with shaved carrot and daikon radish, a healthy side portion of greenish-gold eggplant medallions, and minced pork in a rich, caramel-tinted sauce, infused with green onions. The flavor was a nutty concentration of salty, fatty pork and meaty, earthy eggplant. Simple but perfect.
Halfway through my first entrée, the soup arrived in a heated tureen, complete with crackling noises and the occasional mass of tiny sparks shooting upward from the center flame. The host of ingredients in this soup was unexpected and truly eclectic. Floating in the clear broth was tail-on shrimp, cuts of squid, large green mussels, lemongrass, pineapple hunks, sliced green onion, tomato chunks, chiles, tamarind pulp, bean sprouts, clusters of fried onion and slices of a crisp, spongy water vegetable that my server, Thu, owner Trong-Dai’s daughter, said had no decent English translation, but she compared it to a water chestnut.
This weird, imaginative combination really worked. The vegetative taste of bean sprout, the meaty, briny essence of the seafood, the sour tamarind, the rich fried onions, the sweet pineapple and hot chiles were all as mind-blowing as the array of textures: crunchy, soft, crisp, chewy—all in one deliciously filling soup.
So, why do we like pho so much? Perhaps because it's a respite from the consistent round-robin of burgers, pizza and tacos, especially with the skill and ingenuity of the cooks at Café Da Lat. I don’t know if their recipes are stored underground in a family vault, but if they ever hit the Internet, I’m buying.
The Alibi Recommends:
Hot Vietnamese coffee
Eggplant with ground pork
Seafood in sour soup
Café Da Lat, 5615 Central NE, 266-5559. Hours: Mon–Sat 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sun. Price range: Inexpensive. No smoking, credit cards accepted, booze.