Last year was a great year for me and J. We traveled to Asia, Central America, Canada and Europe. We photographed some beautiful weddings and contributed some work to notable food and travel publications. I re-ignited my love for cooking because of a butcher shop owned by a husband and wife. We earned our scuba diving certification. I moved on from a painful layoff and discovered the joys of being a freelancer. Jeni left her hell-hole school and found her love for teaching at another institution. But most importantly, we started some friendships with people we would otherwise never meet, simply through the writing of food. I could write a whole posting, and I will one day, on the important people in our lives that continue to inspire us to write our blogs. But for this posting, I'm introducing you to a gentleman known as JD. Some of you may know him through his Twitter handle as Tricerapops – yes, he is a proud father of three adorable triplet girls. Completely decked out in Hello Kitty mafia gear. And he enjoys ranting about football and wine, wine and more wine.
Knowing how much J and I love noodles, we received an email from Tricerapops one day, inviting us to come over to his mom's house for some Vietnamese soup noodles. We didn't know him really nor have we met him in person and due to some conflicting schedules, we ended up postponing. But he continued to send us emails over a few months and finally one day, I gave him a call.
Me: "So your mom makes Vietnamese soup noodles?"
JD: "Yeah, she does it every few months and just opens up her house to anyone."
JD: "Yeah, she's been doing this for a long time?"
Me: "For no charge?"
JD: "None. This is what she enjoys doing. And today she has pho."
Me: "We're in there like swimwear."
So on a summer Saturday, J and I headed out to Echo Park to finally meet Tricerapops and eat some soup noodles. Not knowing what his mom likes, we stopped at a Vietnamese bakery and grabbed whatever looked tasty as a pre-thank you. I thought about durian since it's basically a Vietnamese narcotic, but my car would reek. We showed up to the house and we were greeted by JD. From his comments on past postings, we had a pretty good idea of his personality and character and, at that moment, it all came together. Jeni and I knew he was a good guy. Course he is. Who else would invite complete strangers to eat soup noodles at his own mom's place?
For me, there are two categories of pho. The first being the pho most of us will have – which is in a restaurant. We all have our favorite places and pretty much have a set drill on the customization of the perfect bowl of pho. The second being the pho I actually cherish the most – in a kitchen cooked by the hands of a Vietnamese woman. The pho will never taste the same from these categories as expected. At the commercial level, I've seen some kitchens with at least a dozen 3' x 2' stock pots that can serve a good 250-300 bowls. When you're boiling hundreds of pounds of beef bones for 8-10 hours overnight, you're extracting a deeper flavor unachievable at home. I've made pho before a few times and it is a long and arduous process that can still cost around $50-60 for a mere 6-8 bowls. Cough up the $5 elsewhere – it's not worth it if you're going for restaurant quality. But more importantly, the commercial pho will never be as "good" as the home-cooked pho because it misses the one ingredient that varies in every household: a mother's soul.
Growing up, my mom would make soups for us. The most popular being a borscht. Go to any Hong Kong-style cafe and you're likely to be served a watery, tepid version of the Eastern European staple favorite. But my mom added oxtail to it and it was homey. We of course ate it so often it was a staple. But I had a childhood friend that would ask for it every time he came over to our house. My mom never thought twice about making it. I then realized that he had also grown up with no father nor mother – raised only by his old grandma. He saw my mom as his. The last time I talked to him was in high school nearly 15 years ago and he asked if he could have a bowl of my mom's oxtail soup. He left for the Marines and I never heard from him again.
From the doorway, I could see JD's mom in the background peacefully gliding across the kitchen with her own "moves". Every cook has his "moves". Mine happens to involve crashing, bumping and possible injuries if you get too close to the stove and cutting board. And JD was right about this being a dining room turned cafeteria. The table had settings for eight, wine glasses that commemorated JD's numerous wine tastings and a mound of fresh bean sprouts and herbs. And of course, the usual suspects: Sriracha, hoisin sauce and chili sauce. This was basically a pho restaurant without the restaurant. No bean sprouts garnishing the floor, balled-up napkins or bad Karaoke videos blaring in the background. Which I actually like.
We greeted JD's mom and within a few seconds she did what most Asian mothers do - politely cut out the chit chatting, tell you to sit down and get ready to eat. JD poured us some wine. I looked over at Jeni and whispered to my wife: "J, she's the Noodle Mama!"
Indeed she is. Noodle Mama is Mrs. Dang and she grew up in Saigon cooking soup noodles for family and friends whenever she could. Her mother came from Hanoi and handed down the pho legacy. When she moved to Echo Park with her family, she continued to do her thing. On any given weekend, you would find friends, family, family friends, co-workers and even neighbors. At one point, she had be-friended a few people from the local Dream Center, which houses up to 500 people in need of rehabilitation, counseling and protection from the mean streets. JD told me she once blocked out a whole Saturday for his co-workers and had them make reservations anywhere from 9 am - 6 pm. Ha! I asked her if she wanted me to buy her one of those $150 neon pho signs to place in her window, in which she declined with a laugh. I actually thought about buying one to put in my front window just to see how many people would knock on my door. Jeni killed that dream pretty quickly.
A container of sliced beef brisket and shank (nam and chin) she made from hours of boiling – my go-to pho toppings.
And the final touch, a large scoop of soulful broth. I loved how she used a clear Pyrex microwave bowl. Made me feel like I was at the underground viewing level of Sea World, face and hands pressed tightly against the window for a closer look. You could see everything happening in the bowl. Jeni, look at the piece of rare beef being cooked – awesome!
Then she started to compile a bowl in this huge mixing bowl. I looked at the dining table. Okay, JD, JD's dad, JD's brother and sister all have one. Jeni has one. Except for me.
Me: "Mrs. Dang, that's not for me is it?"
Noodle Mama: "Yes! You eat!"
Me: "JD, she's kidding me right?"
JD: "Naw bro, that's all you. It's your first time here. Welcome to our house."
All of a sudden, I'm taken back to a posting I had written on the ridiculous pho challenge up in San Francisco, by a restaurant called Pho Garden. Read if you dare as I get nauseous just looking at the photos. I could wash my face in this mixing bowl if I wanted to. I sat down and Noodle Mama put the finishing touches and carefully walked the bowl over. She set it down and everyone laughed.
And how was it? Very tasty and homey, exactly the way I imagined it to be. There was no skimping going on as some pho restaurants will do. If you wanted more meat, you knew you could very well help yourself to it. All the fixings were there at your disposal. You know the food is good when everyone around you is busy eating and not saying a word. I had barely dented my noodles when Noodle Mama, as any mother would say, reminded me that I had to eat a second bowl. Jesus. This may be the place I lay to rest. In gluttonous happiness.
Question: What is that one dish that you can't refuse when offered by your mom, aunt or grandma?