“And how are things?” I ask as we sit at our table for two.
“Fine,” he says. “You?”
Ours is an occasional relationship that has lasted a decade.
“Same, same.” I look at the menu. It hasn’t changed since the last time we met.
“Except my hair is long, and yours is short,” he says. We laugh.
“You ready to order?” the waiter asks.
Regretting that I forgot to look at the menu in advance, I insist my friend order first. He orders Sweet & Spicy Fried Rice. I’m torn between the Vietnamese Duck Noodle Soup and the Pho, so I ask the waiter, “Which do you recommend?”
“Oh,” the waiter says, “everybody love the Pho.”
The waiter sets the Pho in front of me, and next to it, a plate with Thai basil leaves and cilantro, cut lime, a red and green Thai chili pepper, and bean sprouts. I lower my face to the bowl, breathe in the aromatics and steam.
“How’s work?” my friend asks.
White rice noodles swim in a golden broth dotted with red and green onions, black and red pepper. Tips of well-marbled beef poke through like ice burgs, teasing the richness and depth below. I dip my spoon into the broth and bring it to my lips. It is slightly sweet, slightly tart, with earthy undertones of cinnamon and star anise.
“Good,” I say, putting the spoon down to squeeze lime juice into the bowl. I watch it river through and around the tiny droplets of fat that shimmer on the surface, then tear the basil leaves into small pieces and add them along with chili peppers and bean sprouts. “You?”
“Did I tell you I’m teaching?” he asks.
I pick up my chopsticks, give everything a swirl and dig in — the first bite an even mix of velvety soft noodles and beef, which is simmered to tender perfection, with three bold rings of scallion.
“Nice.” I say, wiping the broth that has dripped down my chin. “Adjunct?”
“Full time. Have been for two years.”
“Oh my, has it been that long…?” I notice gray where there used to be just brown.
We relate the what, when and where of time passed and options for tomorrow as I, politely as I can, work at my soup. We’re both of an age when Chapter Twos are imminent.
When the noodles and beef are gone and we’ve run out of talk, I set down my chopsticks and say, “Pardon me,” then bring the bowl to my lips. What’s left is an ocean of goodness and warmth that I happily drink in.
When we are done, he pays, though I protest, and we walk out to the parking lot, hug, and say what we always say.
“Let’s not wait another year or two, let’s do this again sooner. “
Hanoi Beef Noodle Soup (Pho)
Adapted from Nina Simonds recipe, in Asian Noodles
Step 1: Make the beef stock. (Or, you can, like I did today, because the sun is shining and the dog needs walking, skip this step and use Pacific’s Organic Beef Pho soup starter. If you do, you may want to add a star anise, a bit of ginger, and a cinnamon stick or two, bring to boil, then go to step 2.)
Bring 4 lbs. of beef shinbones or oxtails, 16 cups water, 4 thinly sliced shallots, 1-inch peeled and sliced chunk of ginger, 6 star anise, and 2 cinnamon sticks to boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 1-½ hours, skimming any impurities and fat from the surface.
(You can reduce the above ingredients by 1/4th if you don’t want to cook for six. Same with instructions that follow.)
Strain the broth into another large pot and remove meat from the bones, cutting into thin slices. Discard bones and stock seasonings. Skim fat from surface again. Add a dash of fish sauce plus black pepper. Keep warm over low heat.
Step 2: While broth is simmering, cook the rice noodles
6 oz., according to package directions, then drain.
Step 3:Turn broth into soup
Add 2 cups rinsed and drained bean sprouts plus ½ pound beef sirloin, cut into thin slices to soup. Bring to boil for a minute or two, until beef is no longer pink. Skim the surface again if needed.
Step 4: Slurp time
Garnish with minced scallions, minced cilantro and Thai basil leaves,sliced Thai chili or jalapeno pepper, and lime wedges. Slurp away. Perhaps with a glass or two of Sake.