Jury Duty Food, Part 2: Thai Son, Pasteur, Pho Bang

A block east of the courthouse there’s a street where half the storefronts are bail bond shops, and the other half are Vietnamese joints. That’s the kind of street I love, so it’s where I started my pho explorations.

ThaiSon

I’m lumping all of these places together because they ended up being fairly similar. I ordered pho tai at all three, which is pho with rare-cooked sliced beef. Thai Son, the first place I tried, had the most thinly-sliced beef; it arrived raw and got cooked in the broth. It came with bean sprouts, good-quality fresh basil, noodles, and various sauces. The meat and accompaniments were all excellent but the broth seemed lacking. It was pale, salty and chicken-y, not the nuanced, flavorful stuff I remembered.

The next day I checked out a neighboring joint called Pasteur. This was a sentimental favorite because it reminded me of the venerable Pho Pasteur in Boston, where my love affair with Vietnamese food – and in particular with green bean shake – began many years ago. The beef at Pasteur was thicker, but otherwise this pho closely resembled the first one: good-quality ingredients, but a broth that seemed like a too-close cousin of College Inn chicken stock.

PhoTai
Pho Tai at Pho Bang. In the background is the hot-water thermos for my Vietnamese-style coffee, a half-cup of which made me deliriously jittery for the rest of the day.

On day 3 I turned to the internet to search for a highly-regarded pho joint. I ended up at Pho Bang, a few blocks north. Once again, the solid components were great but the liquid was disappointing.

I began to wonder if my memory was faulty, so I googled “pho broth.” Yep: America’s Test Kitchen describes a stock with “flavor and complexity,” including ginger, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and pepper. That’s what I was missing.

My hunt for a great pho in Manhattan continues (Queens is a totally different story, but Queens is also a long slog on the train from Inwood). Oddly enough, there’s a well-respected place called Saiguette on the Upper West Side, not far from my office. Hope springs eternal! I’ll hit it and report back soon.

 

Jury Duty Food, Part 1: Sau Voi

I had jury duty for half of last week and half of this week. I went in on a Wednesday, sat down in the waiting room, got called in to a case within an hour, and got put on a jury. I’ll have more thoughts on that later – but first, the food.

The great thing about jury duty is it happens at the courthouse on Centre Street, right in the most Vietnamese-y part of Chinatown. I seized the opportunity to start exploring all those pho and banh mi joints in a systematic way. 

I started on Day 1 with lunch at Sau Voi, a sandwich shop I’d been to once before. I had been impressed by the freshness of the bread and the authenticity of the ingredients, so I figured I would go see if that was all a fluke.

SauVoi
Sau Voi’s appeal definitely doesn’t involve a flashy exterior.

Happily, it wasn’t. I got a banh mi with pork pate and ham, and it was like a party in Vietnam in my mouth. The ham was weirdly pink and didn’t look American at all. Actually, it didn’t even look like it should be legal to sell in the U.S. It transported me magically back to the many banh mi I devoured in Ho Chi Minh City and all up the coast of southern Vietnam. The pate, too, just tasted right, and the French bread was perfect. The sandwich also had the classic carrot-daikon slaw, lightly dressed, and some fresh cilantro and chopped jalapenos.

One of the mystery meats involved Szechuan peppercorns – those devilish little guys that make your tongue simultaneously numb and tingly. Szechuan peppercorns in banh mi! I don’t know if that’s authentic, but I don’t care, because it makes me happy.

Unfortunately, the ham turned out to be fatty and parts of it were kind of chewy and gross. I ended up throwing some of it out and settling for the pate, so I resolved to try something not involving ham the next time. More in a future post!

Lemonade

When critics started falling all over each other to praise Beyoncé’s Lemonade, I figured it was just another mass frenzy – everyone  competing to pay the cleverest and most extreme compliment to this decade’s acknowledged Queen of Pop. But now, having finally watched the full hour-long “visual album,” I have to get in formation with all the other worshipful commentators: Lemonade is not only beautiful, but important.

The expression of rage requires courage. You have to know you were wronged, and you have to be firm in your right to express your anger without apology or equivocation. The first 20 minutes of Lemonade are a mesmerizing, liberating expression of pure rage. It’s ostensibly aimed at her cheatin’ man, but as we work our way deeper into the album, more sources of anger arise: the whitewashing of black histories; the oppression of black women; police killings of black youth; the will to genocide expressed in the criminally negligent response to Hurricane Katrina.

Throughout it all, Beyoncé glides, twirls, slinks, shakes her booty, and occasionally explodes in lashings of fire or torrents of floodwater.

The opening strains of “Formation,” the first single from the album, find her speak-singing in a low, strained voice. Singing doesn’t have to be ugly to capture hideous realities – consider Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” But ugliness does telegraph danger, grief and horror. Like rage, it requires confidence. And the result, coming from someone we know can sing the hell out of a melody, is oddly compelling.

“Formation” is supposed to be the final step on a journey to forgiveness and hope, but by the time we get there it’s clear Bey still has plenty of anger to express. And it’s also clear where she finds her redemption: black women. When she sings “OK ladies now let’s get in formation,” it seems to me not just a call to mass political action, but a command to know your collective history – “let’s get INFORMATION.” Once educated, the next step is to get organized: “Prove to me you have some coordination.” Self-education followed by organization is how women have always won our battles, from voting rights to abortion rights. Watching her demonstrate this message in dance at the Super Bowl – THE FREAKING SUPER BOWL – was deliriously fun.

This album has been dismissed as merely commercial. I have to wonder if anyone making this charge has actually watched/listened to it. If her marketing team is telling her to channel pure hellfire, croak like a frog, and depict herself sinking in the waters of Katrina atop a police car, then she needs a new marketing team. Beyoncé could obviously have made more money and sold more clothes from her fashion line by putting out a bunch of peppy dance tunes with peppy dance videos like “Single Ladies.” She could have saved the time, money and effort that went into shooting this gorgeous, layered, haunting and haunted video. But she chose to go the artistic route – because she’s an artist, and she has something to say.

I’m hardly a credentialed member of the Beyhive. I couldn’t even sing you the chorus of “Love on Top.” Political Beyoncé is the Beyoncé who interests me. And with Lemonade, she’s given us a work we can delve into, ruminate on – and, I hope, ACT on – for a good long while.