Have you ever tasted Pho, Vietnamese noodle soup? If not, after reading Connie Phlipot’s latest Sunday Writers’ Club contribution (below) you’re bound to be curious.
Creative Writing Comfort Food
By Connie Phlipot
I like to say that Pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, is comfort food for people who grew up in Saigon or Arlington, Virginia. I didn’t grow up in South Viet Nam nor can I say that I grew up in Arlington. But I came into adulthood in that Washington DC suburb on the Potomac River.
Generations of Foreign Service Officers, e.g., American diplomats, developed a life-long passion for Pho as I did. From sometime in mid-century until 1993 the Foreign Service Training Institute (FSI) was located in Rosslyn, Virginia in a series of high rise office buildings. Just across Key Bridge from the historic, charming Georgetown area of DC, Rosslyn is a jumble of glass and steel skyscrapers littering the gentle, green banks of the Potomac River — the overflow bin for business and government offices escaping the District’s rigid requirement that no building exceed the height of the Washington Monument. It is not an administrative entity, but a neighborhood of Arlington County — the smallest self-governing county in the U.S. (And soon to be the second headquarters of Amazon). In contrast to the District, Arlington had few zoning or historical preservation restrictions. Tall buildings clustered along the river bled into low rise office buildings, used car dealerships and early post-war garden apartments.
What does this have to do with soup? After the fall of Saigon to the communist North Vietnam in 1975 , South Vietnamese refugees — business people, government officials and others with ties to the US and the old regime — settled in the relatively cheap Washington suburb of Arlington. From the late 1970s until the construction of the Orange Line of the metro and the housing boom of the end of the century, Vietnamese shops and restaurants flourished in the Arlington neighborhood referred to as Little Saigon.
My cohort of young, idealistic, ambitious new Foreign Service Officers came from across the U.S. where for the most part Pho or Vietnamese restaurants were unheard of. Giddy with the life of adventure we saw ahead of us, we developed new friendships, even romances (limited by the still low number of women in our ranks) and explored our neighborhood over drinks, dinner and lunch.
Pho 75 was one of the prime lunch spots. It occupied one of the old nondescript pads of a strip mall just up the hill from our training site. The shopping center had long ceased to have retail stores; it housed a changing array of ethnic eateries — Afghan, Vietnamese, Thai among others, — not coincidentally that reflected the shifting alliances of U.S. foreign policy.
Pho 75 served only Pho — two sizes and a choice of type of beef or plain noodles. Customers stood in line until scurrying waiters ushered them to seats at long tables. No dilly-dallying. Ceramic soup spoons, plastic chopsticks and paper napkins were available from a receptacle on each table, along with bottles of soy sauce, hot pepper oil and schiracha sauce. The waiter plopped down a plate overflowing with fresh Thai basil, hot peppers, bean sprouts and spring onions, followed by steaming bowls of noodle soup. The cognoscenti explained to the newcomers that you help yourself to these accompaniments to complete the delicate delicious
lunch before you.
The rice noodles were crunchy, having cooked only during their journey in the hot broth. And the broth was delicately redolent of the ubiquitous Vietnamese “5 spices.” The beefiness of the broth was subtle, just enough to make you feel, warm, loved and ready to get through the rest of the day of learning how to be a diplomat.
Since that time Pho restaurants have spread throughout the area. Little Saigon has relocated its shops and restaurants to a large shopping mall on the far edge of Arlington. The U.S. State Department built its own campus in another part of the county. But Pho 75 is still in the outdated strip mall — along with a continuously evolving selection of ethnic restaurants.
(A decade or so ago, the owner of the mall announced plans to redevelop the space and displace the beloved restaurants. Arlington residents protested; he changed his plans.)
I’ve tasted Pho throughout Northern Virginia, in New York City and in a few places in Europe. The broth is inevitably a little too sweet or salty, the noodles too chewy or the plate of green accompaniments wilted or skimpy.
After careers as diplomats, my husband and I retired and bought a home a 15 minute walk from Pho 75. Around noon the line gathers in front of the restaurant, the cliental now reflecting the ethnicities of Northern Arlington — Middle Easterners, Southern Asians, Russians, Central Americans, as well as young Americans born long after the Vietnam War.
The soup is still delicious, tasting of promise, hope and contentment. And I’ve heard that the Foreign Service student body has out grown the new training center campus, forcing the State Department to once again rent space in Rosslyn. Giving a new generation of Foreign Service officers a chance to experience Pho.