Pho, Winter’s Warming Panacea

Paris, January 2, 2017

IT happens to me every winter during my six years in New York from 1997 to 2003. A cough develops, a wheezy feeling descends deep in the chest, and the dry air in a heated room becomes both friend and foe: yes, it warms you, but it has this devilish knack of tickling, teasing, and scratching away at the throat. The pesky feeling said hello on New Year’s eve, my seventh day in Paris, and the second day Paris fell below zero degrees Celsius since my arrival.

Just before midday today, I popped a Humex, an anti-cough, anti-fever pill, and nasal decongestant. I thought I felt better, but the body was screaming for something warming, some kind of meat, though a soup would have been ideal. I had in mind a duck confit at Robert et Louise, but it was closed today. Then there was tagine just ten minutes by foot from home at the Marché des Enfants Rouges in Le Marais. Tagine it was. Done!

I walked down Rue Volta en route to Mr. Tagine, but decided I would just stand in line outside this tiny restaurant with a tatty exterior and the words “pho” on one of its glass panes, its name inconspicuous, pasted with tacky, stenciled words in yellow on an adjacent pane: Song Heng, next to its Chinese equivalent: 松兴.

I had discovered this place on New Year’s eve. You wouldn’t miss it given the line that forms outside its tiny red wooden door. It must be good, I thought, but found the Chinese name suspicious. Vietnamese pho by a Chinese proprietor and chef—which was entirely possible given how the Japanese noodle joints at Rue Saint Anne, the Little Tokyo of Paris, could well be Chinese-run, even though they may be Japanese-owned, just like Sapporo Ramen which I had visited two days ago. It was less than mediocre, as affirmed by a food blogger I had read later that day, who gave it a rating of “0 etoiles à fuir” (zero stars to flee).

I may well run into a similar experience here as I did at Sapporo Ramen, but I would never know if I never tried, and so I stood in line, ten pax away from the door. Soon, a young lad, a Parisian Perseus with tight curly locks and a dapper pair of leather shoes joined me behind. Next, five Koreans, then another Parisian, whose impatience rattled the cold, damp one-degree air, after he poked his nose in the foggy restaurant window.

“That’s crazy,” he complained, “those four people in there are sitting and chatting over empty bowls when they should just clear out.” I commiserated with him, and agreed this was no café. I learned from him that the restaurant has been around for 24 years, and that he’s been a faithful patron for 20, coming for his hit of pho sometimes even five times a week. Because it’s so good, he swears, and plus, it’s cheap. 

C’est le meilleur à Paris,” he tells me, “the best,” after I ask him if there are any other pho joints he likes. And he confirms it’s the real stuff: Oui, c’est un restaurant Vietnamien! But what about the Chinese name on the restaurant front, I ask? Oh, he gives me that je ne sais pas look, suggesting the name might be just for pure marketing, so that tourists can remember the name better. But that’s not the point he wants to press, it’s this one he’s after.

The pho here is like natural medication, he tells me, assuring me that my cough would go away if I order the soupe pho with a dash of piment, or chili (they offer two types: sliced chilli and Sriracha). 

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That’s really almost all they offer at this elbow-to-elbow, 22-seat establishment: pho (sliced beef and beef balls with rice noodles in a beef bouillon) and bo bun (grilled beef slices with rice vermicelli), two types of beer, and tea, with a special advisory to patrons, as with all establishments serving meat: Toutes nos viandes bovines ont d’origines française. All our beef are from France.

I ordered a grande at 8,60 euros, while Perseus, who sat across me ordered a petit at 7,80 euros. The beansprouts showed up first, piled high, almost spilling over in an oval platter with two slices of lemon and several sprigs of mint.

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This was part of the medication—the mint and the lemon—a nice prelude to the meal, for you had to pluck the mint leaves one by one, inviting the cool, minty fragrance to the table and fingers followed by an acidic squirt of lemon over your bouillon of delicious goodness, so piping hot you could see the slices of beef turn from a raw pink to a clearer cooked brown right before your very eyes.

Perseus had parked his two beef balls in his sauce dish, a gesture I had thought was a sign of saving the best for last, but no, he tossed them back into his empty bowl at the end of the meal and proclaimed: “Non, je ne l’aime pas trop.” He didn’t quite care for it.

But was the pho good? Yes, it was!

My bowl was clean, ultra-clean, even having swiped away most of the beansprouts Perseus never touched. It felt as good as when I had my first pho ever, in Paris as well, somewhere in Les Halles in 1994.

There’s something about a bowl of hot soup on a cold, cold winter’s day. It’s fortifying, satisfying, invigorating. And it helps to know that this place is authentic Vietnamese. The gentleman tells me, “Yes, I’m from Vietnam, but my grandparents were from Hong Kong.” And what about the madame who served us? She’s from Cambodia, not China, she was quick to correct me.

Then you walk out of the cold feeling bolder and stronger, ready to conquer the city, but not quite willing, at least today, to get lost as I had over my first few days in Paris.

“It’s the cough and the zero-degree cold!” the girl doth protest.

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