Pho + Coffee = Winter

A sudden thirty-degree drop in morning temperatures in the the DC area is a not-so-surprising surprise, if the National Weather Service is correct in predicting record snowfall and temperatures this coming winter. As a survivor of the infamous “Snowmageddon” a few years ago (one slab of memory includes trekking through knee-deep snow to get to the nearest Starbucks for WiFi), I am both looking forward to these predictions and not looking forward to them. While I am curious to see whether this winter will match Snowmageddon, I am not sure how I feel about being trapped indoors for seven days. Make pots and pots of stew, I guess.

In any event, cold mornings have me thinking about two things. Boiling hot bowl of pho and strong coffee.

There are not many establishments where one can get both good savory food and good coffee. Plenty restaurants have good coffee service (I remember the now defunct Adour in the St. Regis hotel in DC serving excellent La Colombe after an exceptional lunch offering), some exceptional, but it is not easy to name a place that I could confidently say that I would dine there for the coffee.

Of course, one hunts down coffee shops for good coffee, where good food is also often discovered, but predictably of the sweet variety.

Pho shops hit you twice. First with that meaty, oily, minty, cilantro-lime-pepper-Sriracha broth. Next with a shot of slow-dripped black magic with near 50% condensed milk content. Meat-savory closely followed by sweet caffeine, a lethal combination for any cold night.

For a good bowl of pho, I usually find myself driving around the outskirts of Vienna, VA, Fairfax, or the more immigrant-dense areas of Falls Church. My experience tells me these places (often run-down joints in hidden streets and alleys) have the best authentic foods, including pho. That partially explains why I have yet to try a decent bowl of pho in the District.

So when I walked into Caphe Banh Mi in Old Town Alexandria, in a more “hip” neighborhood near King Street, I had no expectations. Surprisingly, I was impressed by both pho and coffee.

Here’s what Tom Sietsema (a renowned food critic in his own right) of the Washington Post had to say about their pho. “Pho comes with a minimal amount of the shaved beef we request, and its demure broth requires every accompanying enhancer – lime, jalapeno, Thai basil – to inject more spirit into the bowl.” While he is partially correct, I have to disagree with his overall impression of the place.

First, in a bowl of pho, the “shaved beef,” called “tai,” is the last thing I look forward to. Rather, the more tasty bites come from the tripe, fatty brisket, meatballs, and tendons. Sietsema, of all people, you should know that. (Oh sorry, maybe I’m mistaking you for Robert Sietsema from Eater NY, a respectable offal and ethnic cuisine master) But he’s right in that the bowl could have used more from the animal.

Second, I would not use the word “demure” to describe the broth. I was rather surprised by the depth of the broth; while it was not as deep or flavor-packed as Pho 75 in Falls Church or Viet House in Fairfax, it was rich and clean. And to bash on Sietsema again, part of the pho “spirit” inherently lies in the “accompanying enhancers,” the lime, jalapeno, and Thai basil. You first enjoy the broth as is, and as the meal progresses with each slurp, you drop in the jalapeno and the basil, and of course the bean sprouts, to experience complex layers of texture and flavor. The lime squeeze and Sriracha give you that extra kick on colder days.

On this particular day – drizzling, with random gusts blowing premature leaves into street corners – strong Vietnamese coffee was a welcome closer. And Caphe Banh Mi does it right. While the restaurant owner made a small fortune selling frozen yogurt before opening up the noodle and banh mi shop, strong-sweet coffee is the proper way to wash down the “demure” broth. These things are also potent in iced form during the sweltering summer months, as documented by my friend and co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms, when he wrote, “On that first afternoon in Saigon, I drank three before the old woman with the gentle face put her hand on my shoulder and told me no more. I don’t remember if she spoke English or not, but the message was clear. My hands were trembling and my heart was beating in my throat; Vietnam was suddenly wide open.”

As I transferred the last few spoonfuls from bowl to mouth, I eyed the stainless steel brewing contraption, as the midnight dark coffee (yes, probably way over roasted by my usual standards) slowly dripped down into the waiting pool of condensed milk. A light swirl with the teaspoon across the bottom of the cup transform the black liquid into a murky brown hue, and in three long sips, I am a happier man.

To be fair to Sietsema, the pho at Caphe Banh Mi is not the best I’ve had (not by any means), and I haven’t tried the banh mi. But it’s the closest thing to greatness I’ve come across in Old Town, and there is nothing remotely close in DC. (And I cannot believe the Post would rank Cafe Asia in front of Caphe Banh Mi. Inexcusable.)

So as I dig through my closet in search of running tights on this frigid morning, my thoughts are swimming across seas of beef broth and sweet coffee. Long live the season.

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