I’m making a mental note to never eat Pho while wearing my glasses or while dining with anyone I’m trying to impress (or even just keep as an acquaintance). I’m just not good at it and still I tackle the dish with a gusto that’s really, in the end, embarrassing. That’s just a start. I will also avoid places whose menus are front-loaded with various reviews from international guidebooks, a server in such sad shape that she can barely get up the stairs from the kitchen, splatters on the red walls from previous diners misadvenures with their Pho (see note on my glasses above), plastic flowers, flashing twinkle lights or a Christmas tree in the front window that looks sadder than poor Charlie Brown’s.
Pho 67 just off the Boulevard Saint Michel, an area teeming with tourists and students, used to be a good spot to sample some of the great Vietnamese food Paris turns out (without trekking to the 13th). It was straightforward, relatively inexpensive, and lively – shouting waiters, loudly sizzling woks, a young crowd. Tonight it was just sad. There was no life either in the restaurant itself or in the food.
The last time I was here was over two years ago and perhaps I should have taken note of the precipice it was on then. My dear husband and I were seated next to a family from the Oakland, California hills. The children were neatly dressed, hairs all in place and behaving as if they’d been threatened with no video games for a month if they acted up. The dad was in a getup that I’m sure he’d purchased on their visit here. His short blonde hair was matted to his head with gel and he’d gone far afield by wearing a floral shirt with a striped linen scarf around his neck. I wanted to shake him and tell him he wasn’t French, didn’t look French and would never pull this look off – I’m sure that outfit is dejectedly hanging in the back of his walk-in closet back home. Oh, and the mom. She was not as notable for how she looked (I’ll leave her to your imagination but she fit the tableau perfectly), but how she sounded. Her French was painful and loud as every syllable was over-enunciated with a terrifically nasal and flat accent. In spite of the waiter trying to speak back to her in English (to me, always a signal that I should venture no further with my horrific French) she soldiered on for all of us to marvel at.
This family talked to another American family who brought in another table of Americans so we might as well have been in Nebraska. The few French guests watched with eyes wide and I’m guessing that because of years of good reviews the owners don’t have to cater to a returning crowd anymore and meanwhile the quality of the food has plummeted. However, Pho 67 was delicious last time I visited, hence my return visit (wouldn’t a nice bowl of pho be perfect after a long day of travel on a cold night?). I don’t remember all of what we ate before, but I remember being pleased with the variety and quality of the dishes. Tonight however, my pho, their famous beef pho with the bone full of marrow as its centerpiece, was not spiced enough. The noodles weren’t great, the meat on the bone – the stewed beef wasn’t cooked long enough so I ended up eating it with my fingers like corn on the cob and one piece was so tough I couldn’t manage to get through to the meat for all of the sinew encasing it (that should be long gone from the hours of cooking). The marrow inside the bone was lukewarm so I had difficulty dislodging it. The slivers of beef filet that are cooked when you add the broth to your noodles, were poorly cut and stringy. To make matters worse, my beloved spring rolls, filled with crab and shrimp, were essentially tasteless as was the dipping sauce (no sweet tang that you expect with Vietnamese food) AND somehow even the lettuce and the mint that you wrap your rolls in before dipping were bland. I don’t know if I entered another dimension, but it was kind of shocking.
I kept dunking my spoon into the endless bowl of soup, wanting it to transform into the phos I have known (perhaps the title for a book, someone?). Alas, I put the spoon down and asked for my bill (which took an age because the poor woman can’t get up or down the stairs – you shouldn’t feel guilty asking your server to get something for you). After cleaning my glasses which looked like they’d been splashed with mud and using a wet wipe on my hands, I scurried out almost laughing to myself because I should have seen the signs before I went in. Still, it’s a crisp night here in Paris and I decided to wander through the streets a little, through groups of students from the Sorbonne just getting out of class and people walking their dogs after work. Still hungry, I decided that a crepe with butter, sugar and lemon was just what I needed to make things right. The crepe man was a talker (unlike my server at Pho 67) and he made my crepe with a great deal of panache. This warm pyramid of buttery goodness put a new spring in my step and I gobbled it down so it wouldn’t get cold. As I stood at the crosswalk I distinctly saw a delicate Frenchwoman grimace as I put the last too big bite in my mouth – I just smiled at her and licked my sticky fingers.59 rue Galande Paris 75005