My hours of exploring Hanoi on foot have entered a sad hiatus as I wait out summer’s torrid sauna for winter’s cold, damp, cloudy return. This sizzling heat bath means sticking close to the hotel on work overmights or venturing out on the motorbike only for very short journeys. The foolishness we call driving in the capital city really limits my food exploration radius.
Though I try to seek out new places, the heat drove me to return to an old nearby favorite…the noodle and fried rice joint on Xuan Dieu Road next to Tracy’s in the Tay Ho neighborhood. Have you ever succumbed to one of those spontaneous late evening cravings you go ahead with anyhow knowing full well it’s a dietary disaster? Yes, you know what I am talking about.
As I ordered a takeaway portion of wok fried noodles called phở xào, the girl was trying desperately to convey some sort of message I just didn’t understand. Why was she saying the words for cow beef and pig meat over and over again? I said, “vang, vang, vang,” just like the locals do for yes, yes, yes and she responded in kind with a long, drawn out, annoyingly nasal and most dramatic “ooooooooaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh.” Was “vang” not the proper answer here? I thought the first rule of thumb when you have no clue what someone is saying in a foreign country is to just smile and say yes.
Mama-san came running over and suddenly four family members were peering into a container as if they were trying to will something into existence. Mama-san looked my way and I blurted out “vang, vang, vang” unexpectedly and for absolutely no reason at all. She acknowledged with a strange hissing and clucking noise while smacking her tongue loudly against her teeth with utmost fanfare. It all began to feel like some sort of verbal spanking. Thank you ma’am, may I have another one please?
The young girl hesitantly lit the flame, tossed in the soft rice noodles, and away we went. A squirt of some unidentified liquid from a recycled water bottle with a hole punched in the lid joined huge amounts of onion, bok choy, garlic, meat, and black pepper. We’ll just call that suspect fluid their secret seasoning mix. What I believe to be pure lard coaxes the outsides of the noodles into crisping up like a frame holding in the silky insides. I love this stuff, in highest moderation of course.
A sweat fueled walk got this takeaway gold back to my hotel room where I realized not only had they had gipped me on chopsticks, but the phở xào was missing the customary beef. In its place they had substituted pork, and this is what they had been trying unsuccessfully to convey. Luckily I still had a spoon the size of my pinky from a chocolate dessert earlier in the day. Wiping away the remaining mousse rendered it good as new and I can tell you that eating long noodles with something that size tests patience, skill and agility. This meal was a metaphor for Vietnam where it’s all about making do with whatever is on hand whether that’s missing utensils or meat.
Yes, I know we’ve sampled phở xào before but this pig based version is something new indeed. Based on all the drama when I ordered, I am convinced pork chunks are an aberration, yet I do hope to once again come across this one for pork over here is much more tender than the grainy beef.