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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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Scene One: Melt-In-Your-Mouth Spicy Beef and Tendon

When you think of Annandale, VA, you think Korean food. The usual suspects of various grill joints, tofu houses, bakeries and grill joints next to bakeries. Then the occasional Japanese establishments and Peruvian chicken gigs (which, by the way, is a taste of heaven, especially in Annandale).

Just the thought of coming face to face with authentic Chinese noodle soups…not the kind you find in shopping mall food courts, but the real deal with local feel. The rule of thumb is, go where the locals go. The Korean grill joint where Koreans flock to, must be something there. The pho house that the Vietnamese gather in, must be doing something right. That’s the case at A & J in Annandale.

My first time around, I tried the peanutty Dian Dian Mein, surprisingly think and spicy (both good things), and the fried chicken noodle soup (perfectly seasoned and fried). But I had my eye on a dish in particular, the spicy beef and tendon noodle soup, Szechuan style. So began my blissful eating.

First, the aroma. It was deep, and I could feel the spices emanating from the broth. Kind of reminiscent of five-spice, but much more complex, even a hint of herbal medicine. I first taste the reddish-brown broth, and that aroma hits my senses in liquid form. Not too oily, but deep in flavor, with all that spice and beefy goodness. The sheer amount of beef and tendons was ridiculous (generosity in portions is a must for me in restaurants). The beef had the perfect fat content to allow it to melt in my mouth, and the tendon was perfectly cooked. The wide noodles matched well with the overall thick flavor.

If you’re into the best parts of meat, like innards and tendons, this is a must.

Scene Two: Jjambbong is the Name

Not many have heard of the place. Even the local Koreans are not familiar with it. Inside the quaint food court area of the Lotte Mart in Fairfax, VA, there exists the best Korean-Chinese joint in town, Tian. Most of the Korean-Chinese places are in Annandale or Centreville (like everything else), but most of those joints are overrated. I’ve been a usual at Tian since my law school days, and in particular, I’m a sucker for their jjambbong.

What, you say, is that name again? If there is pho in Vietnam, there is jjambbong in Korea. Friends, if you’re like me and have a constant craving for hot soups full of noodles, meat, and seafood, give this a try. The broth can either be seafood or beef based, and if you don’t mind the heat, it is bold and rich in flavor. Not to mention the heaping mounts of mussels, clam and squid, partnered with cabbage and other veggies.

It has a strong aroma, a kick from the dried peppers and jalapenos. The broth has a deep flavor of the sea from the mussels and clams. The noodles are silky and perfectly cooked. The meal truly warms your innards on a cold day, and nostalgia takes you away to the port towns of the southern Korean shoreline.

This little-known Korean delicacy is a true contender amongst the world of noodle soups.

Scene Three: Oh What More to Say

For those of you who have frequented this blog, I have nothing further to say about pho. Or do I.

It’s something about the fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime that gets me every time. Yes, the beef broth that has simmered for twenty hours is surely divine, and the morsels of meat, tripe and tendon are indescribable. But pho is distinct in this trilogy for its interplay between slow and fast, stewed and fresh. The lively herbiness enhances its flavor triple-fold.

And no, not all pho joints are created equal. In the DC area, I still think Pho 75 is king. But Viet House in Fairfax, VA, is legit. The broth has a deeper flavor, the brisket is soft and has the right fat content, and they are not shy to mount heaps of tripe and tendon, which is what makes a good bowl of pho, great.

‘Twas the end of a perfect road trip with my wife, pounding blue crabs in Annapolis, and what a perfect way to commemorate the weekend. A cold glass of iced coffee with sweet condensed milk, the fresh bean sprouts lightly withering in the steaming broth, the company of my beautiful lady – oh the joys of life.

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Epilogue

I am proud to say that I had the delightful luxury of consuming the Mein Trilogy in the span of two days. There exists many more gastronomical mysteries yet to be discovered in the noodle soup category, and I am destined to search further and deeper. Join me in this calling.

Rain makes everything taste better. In undeniable fashion, it meddles with our senses, cajoles our innermost likes and desires.

Rain makes coffee divine.

Steam slowly rising from a 16 oz paper cup is glorious against the backdrop of droplets of cold rain painting themselves onto window panes.

photo by time

No cream, no sugar, no half-and-half, no Splenda. Just black. To perfectly match the incongruous clouds drift away in their dark splendor. The first sip is heavenly. Slight burn on the lips, that’s okay. The first note jolts your tongue, slightly acidic, not burnt. It’s like a warm campfire spreading in your mouth. The fire roars down your throat, beckoning for a second, third gulp.

Rain makes pho…well, rain completes pho.

Hot bowl of broth with soft noodles and various meats, innards and tendon – you cannot go wrong. The broth is steaming, close to boiling hot. Quickly, you marry the broth with fresh bean sprouts, green onions, white onions, Thai basil, and hot peppers. You nervously run your chopsticks through the bowl, eying the fresh herbs as they merrily wilt into the beefy abyss. Bless them, there is plenty of cilantro.

A splash of lime. Maybe a dash of Sriracha.

The tendon, tripe, rare steak, fatty flank, tripe. Just melts away as you devour this creation one spoonful at a time.

Rain hits you in different spots.

Memories found, thoughts provoked, journeys interrupted.

But most of all, rain calls for something hot.

Why not a cup of joe and some pho.

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