Being on the road all the time means that I am constantly eating out. Because of budgetary constraints, a lot of it ends up being fast food garbage or some buffet place of mostly-dubious quality. Roadfood is an occasional series in which I highlight some of the better options I find along the way.
No fast food – that’s the main rule I set for myself whenever it’s time for me to head back out on the road. No fast food – because it’s bad for me, because it makes me feel like garbage afterward, and because other options can always be found, even if it takes a bit of searching to find them.
Of course, it’s not always that easy – some hotels I end up staying at are in tiny towns by the highway, only existing because they’re by the highway, and not offering much else than a McDonald’s, a Subway, and a nearby gas station. It would take a bit of extra driving to find the nearest supermarket, or local deli, or – Christ, anything but Subway – but on a lot of those workdays, I’m just too exhausted to expand my search, so I end up at McDonald’s instead (I still avoid Subway, as I’d rather feel like shit after wolfing down a Quarter Pounder than be enveloped in the “Subway smell”, which makes me want to retch). I eat my McDonald’s, deal with the spike in blood pressure (I am not a healthy man), then profess to adhere to my ‘no fast food’ rule a little better at the next town I reach.
There are exceptions to the rule, too. I’m always eager to check out some regional chain that I’ve never heard of previously (i.e the Bullritos I wrote about last time, or the lovely Mary Brown’s Chicken & Taters in Canada), or check out some fast food chain I had heard of before but never tried (i.e. In-N-Out Burger, which deserves a new word to describe it whose definition would mean, “overrated by a previously uncalculatable factor”), or see if Carl’s Jr offers something that Hardees does not. Or if my Mom says I need to check it out.
In bigger towns, and especially during my weekend stops when I have more time to relax, it’s much easier for me to avoid fast food places. A large reason for that is because I’m usually able to track down a much better option, one that’s much tastier, healthier, more filling, and costs about as much as your typical fast food value meal. As often as I can, I try to track down some pho.
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Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup that oh my God do I really have to define this? You know what it is, right? Here’s the Wikipedia page for it if you don’t. And if you’re too lazy to click that, here’s what I’m just lazy enough to type out before moving on: it’s soup, usually with a beef broth, has noodles, has various parts of beef that some folks are too chickenshit to try, has basil and peppers and scallions and oh-so-many bean sprouts that you can add according to your liking, and has a funky accent mark over the “o” that I don’t feel like whipping out the Character Map on my laptop for.
It’s good shit, basically. And it’s cheap shit, too – even in the DC suburbs where I’m typing this, you can get a hearty bowl of pho for $7.25. Really, if you are paying more than $10 for a bowl of pho, then you are being gypped. Also, you’re probably in Manhattan or Brooklyn, eating at some nouveau Asian fusion place that doesn’t actually have any Asians working there, and you’re probably too rich or too up-your-own-foodie-ass to admit to yourself that what you’re eating isn’t very good. Have fun with that.
Where was I? Oh yeah – pho. It’s good shit! And it’s not just the pho that is good – the whole process of eating it is fantastic. At most places, you are served a bowl of broth with the noodles inside, plus whatever beef (or chicken, or seafood, or I guess veggies or whatever) you ordered in there as well (I usually get meatball, lean and fatty brisket, and tripe) – everything else comes on the side. That’s what makes the whole process so great: breaking down the basil, adding the sauce and the peppers (which makes the broth hotter and hotter, especially towards the end as everything has settled to create heat at the my-nose-is-running-but-not-enough-to-be-embarrassing level), deciding how many of the ungodly amounts of bean sprouts they’ve given you to add (fun fact: no one in history has ever eaten all the bean sprouts that a Vietnamese place give you for your pho), then stirring it all in, then alternating between sips of the broth and chopsticks-ful helpings of the noodles and everything else in there – all of that adds up to a slow, deliberate process that runs counter to the usual habit of wolfing down a fast food meal as quickly as possible, then sitting back and waiting for the regret to set in. There’s no regret after eating a bowl of pho – you are left feeling warm and incredibly happy.
In the olden days – let’s say 2004 – good pho could be difficult to find unless you lived in a major city or possibly in one of those cool college towns that you wish you could have gone to instead of spending four deathly-boring years at the University Of Central Florida (note: not written from experience, as I only went to school there for 3 years). As with Ethiopian food back then (which can still be difficult to find), it was one of those things that I’d stumble upon every now and again during my travels. As such, I cherished each moment and savored every drop of broth and every molecule of beef that was still swimming around in there, because I didn’t know when I’d come across it again.
(Side note because I don’t know where else to put this: it’s been a while since I’ve been there, but – at least until 2010 – the best Vietnamese restaurant in America was Pho Grand in St Louis, Missouri. If it’s still around, and still has the same owners, then it’s – and I can’t stress this enough – the only worthwhile reason to visit St Louis, Missouri. Name your favorite Vietnamese place in the comments, especially if it’s in the Northeast, as that’s where I’m heading next.)
Nowadays, Vietnamese restaurants have become more prevalent and easier to find, even in smaller towns. They’re never going to be as ubiquitous as Chinese take-out places or Mexican restaurants, but there are more of them out there than you’d think. If you find yourself in some small town in which fast food appears to be the only viable option, use Google Now or Google Maps on your Android phone to see what’s around you, or ask Siri, or do whatever people with Blackberry’s do to search for stuff (I assume it involves lots of cursing over their outdated phones) – you might be happily surprised to see that there’s some tasty pho nearby.
The pho pictured at the top of this post was a take-out order from Pho Thang Long in Fairfax, Virginia. Though it was really good, if you find yourself in Fairfax, I’d suggest checking out Pho Deluxe first, as their pho - and everything else of theirs that I’ve sampled - is top-notch. Seriously - while affordability was one of the reason why I spent the last two weekends at a motel in Fairfax, the main reason was because the motel is across the street from Pho Deluxe.
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