One of my best friends in the world is of Vietnamese descent. I would normally write that he’s Vietnamese-American, but I am pretty sure he considers himself an American before all other classifications. No matter, as he is the guy responsible for introducing me to the underworld of Vietnamese cuisine.
Back in ancient times, sometime during the mid-90’s, my Vietnamese friend and I worked together on a military staff assignment in Texas. Since we were both forward thinkers and were somewhat bored with the dining options on base, we began a tradition where we visited a Vietnamese restaurant every Wednesday for lunch. *Memory Disclaimer: I don’t really remember if we actually went every week or if the chosen day was Wednesday — but both are close enough.
I couldn’t tell you the name of the place we used to go to, but it was in a rough part of town that featured run-down laundromats and scary looking used car lots. Neighborhood appearances (and appliances) aside, the food was great there, and we had safety in numbers since usually a group of four or five of us went together.
I usually bungled my way through the meal, bravely brandishing chopsticks until my fingers cramped, forcing me then to retreat to fork and spoon. I never knew what we ordered since my friend did all the talking, and the language was not English. I was told we always received “authentic Vietnamese” as opposed to “Watered Down For Americans” Vietnamese, but I couldn’t really tell the difference anyway, as most of the ingredients of whatever dish sat in front of me usually defied my simple understanding.
This routine became a regular part of our working lives, and when we both moved to Southern California years later, we picked it right up again. This time we frequented a Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall every Friday (previous disclaimer applies), and the entire routine was essentially duplicated. My friend did the ordering, and the rest of us stuffed down our Muggle gullets whatever found its way to the table in front of us.
One particular Friday, however, we pulled up to a different Vietnamese restaurant in the same strip mall. I guess it was not that unusual in and of itself, since all the stores in this shopping center were Vietnamese but, still, I wondered why we changed venues.
We all sauntered into the new place and grabbed a table. My friend didn’t seem to be forthcoming with any information, so I broached subject.
“Okay. What’s the deal? Why did we switch restaurants today?”
The response from my friend was simple: “It’s cleaner.”
Got it. Okay. That was that.
That incident took place probably about ten or twelve years ago, and my Vietnamese friend now lives on the east coast. But today one of my favorite meals remains Vietnamese noodle soup: pho.
And as luck or fate would have it, our little SoCal suburban enclave features not one, but two Vietnamese restaurants. Well, truthfully, we used to have only one here for many years, and that’s where I got my fix. The trouble was, this place featured the meanest, surliest servers that I ever experienced. They made the Soup Nazi look like Bambi.
You see, sometimes when you happen to be the owner of a monopoly, it can go to your head, regardless of how good your food is.
But two or three years ago, a second pho restaurant opened across town, which we immediately tried. The food was great at the new place, and we’ve never gone back to the original.
When Son came home for a weekend visit from college a few years ago, we bypassed our old haunt in favor of the new. Son was unaware that the landscape had changed.
“Where are we going? This is not the way to Pho,” he wondered.
“It is. These other guys have opened up a pho place just down the street,” I replied.
“But why are we going there?”
“Because they’re nicer to us.” End of story.
So as my Spouse, Daughter Number Two, and myself finished up a tasty Vietnamese dinner this evening, I remembered the journey that led to this destination. And as I’ve said many times previously, what goes around, comes around.
The trouble is, the original pho restaurant here is still doing gangbusters business. But, a-ha, so is the second one.
Anyway, after we finished our supper, I had to make a deposit at the ATM across the parking lot from the restaurant. After inserting the envelope into the machine, I turned to get back in the van and there on the ground in front of me was a shiny new penny lying heads up.
I picked it up and thought that, all in all, it doesn’t get much better.