I had to go to Philadelphia last week for just a few hours, but I knew that while I was there, I had to make time to eat. No, I didn’t visit Tony Luke’s, Pat’s, Gino’s, or Jim’s. After living in Philadelphia for about 9 years, I know exactly where to find the best food. At a Vietnamese restaurant called “Nam Phuong,” tucked a way in the corner of the Wing Phat shopping plaza on Washington Blvd.
While I was there, I definitely didn’t appreciate how amazing the Vietnamese food at Nam Phuong is. In fact, I was annoyed that every time my parents came to visit, they only wanted to go to Nam Phuong. Not once would they try Amada by Jose Garces or one of the many, amazing BYOBs in the city! Nope, just Nam Phuong. Spoiled as I was by the spot-on flavors of all the Vietnamese fair, I would sigh and begrudgingly drive to Wing Phat, fighting off the sea of Asian drivers all battling for 1.5 parking spaces in which to park their cars… diagonally, of course.
After I spent the summer in Vietnam and then moved to New York, I realized why my parents had been so addicted and devoted to Nam Phuong. It’s not fancy and you could basically go in your PJ’s (which are worn quite often around the streets of Vietnam) to dine. When you walk in, there are giant round tables everywhere and all you can hear is the frantic sound of plastic chopsticks on ceramic bowls and slurping of noodles through hot soup. You can see steam rising up from below the hunched over faces of the guests who on occasion, look up from their bowls to breath in cool air, blow their running noses, or sigh deeply to try and make room for the next bout of noodle-slurpage. In short, it’s wonderful. It’s a symphony of food joy. It brings tears to my eyes to see people enjoying their food in such an honest and loving way. There’s no discussion about plating, no talk of seasoning (go on, season and garnish it yourself with your plate of bean sprouts, mint, thai basil & limes), and little talk at all except for those deep, labored sighs that only accompany food so good that you can’t stand to leave any leftover.
So when my mom and I found a parking spot right in front of Nam Phuong in the middle of the day, and then walked in to find it uncrowded with no wait… it was like a little pho miracle sent from Buddha. We shared a banh xeo that was so good wrapped in lettuce and garnished with mint, thai basil, cucumber, and pickled carrots & daikon (although nothing beats the banh xeo made and served in Danang).
For our entrée, we didn’t even have to ask each other what our orders would be. My mother is from Hue and I inherited her spicy, salty Hue blood (read that however you like). These two Hue girls ordered bowls of Bun Bo Hue – spicy pork and beef broth soup served with spongy, round rice noodles, thin slices of brisket, and congealed pork blood. The flavor is intense. The heat is intense. The spiciness is intense. This soup is not for the weak or the ignorant of palate. If you don’t like this soup, if you can’t handle the heat, then you need to train yourself to enjoy it or risk dying a bland and boring life. I could say, “it’s OK, to each their own…” But I just don’t feel that way. When it comes to Bun Bo Hue, there is no other right answer.
We squeezed fresh lime juice into our giant, steaming bowls of bun bo, and then added additional bean sprouts, mint, and thai basil. There’s only one size: warrior-portion. For baby & sissy-portions, go elsewhere. I used to not be a fan of the congealed blood, but I was young and stupid. It has the meaty, nutty, gamey flavor of liver with a little marrow, and its mellow earthiness is perfection with the spicy, tangy broth. The spongy, round noodles are fun and happy, like skinny udon noodles, and have the right amount of slurping slipperiness. My mom and I barely spoke as we focused intently on the mission at hand: eat, savor, & enjoy. Of course, our silent enjoyment was only broken when one of use would need to come up for air and a break from the steam to blow our nose or breath out to make room for more noodles.
Had there been time for dessert, I would have gotten a shaved ice, coconut milk, mung bean, and pandan jelly noodle dessert, but alas, our time in Philly was short this go around. But Nam Phuong… oh Nam Phuong… I can’t wait to visit you again (cue the dreamy, Vietnamese string music, mist, and then… fade out).