Tuesday, January 27, 2009

To Chau

So, on Saturday, while my wife was at the office working hard to beat a deadline, I decided to hit Chinatown and make serious work of my own…on some Vietnamese food. Since I was in the mood for pho, I really had no choice but to go to To Chau for a heaping bowl of pho tai bo vien (noodle soup with sliced rare steak and beef balls).

I was amazed that I got seated without waiting in line, and my timing couldn’t have been better because only a few minutes after sitting down I noticed half a dozen people standing by the entrance, fidgeting with themselves and sniffing the pho-scented air.

The woman who seated me started off by asking me what I’d like to drink, so I ordered iced milk coffee. I had to wait a bit to place my pho order, but that paled in comparison to the twenty-plus-minute wait for my pho to be delivered. I understand that one can’t rush good food, but even in Vietnam, which generally isn’t known for its efficiency, pho at most takes two minutes to serve. We’re talking restaurants that specialize in pho, not obscure, complicated menu items.

In any case, by the time I found myself face to face with my order, the ice in my coffee had completely melted, leaving me with an unappetizing glass of bitter-sweet brown water. Luckily, my pho tai bo vien exceeded all expectations.

Clear broth is the first thing I look for in pho, and mine passed that test. Another thing I look for is the pleasantly scented mixture of aromatic herbs, parboiled beef, thinly cut onions, and cinnamon, cardamom, and Chinese five-spice. Again, my pho didn’t let me down. I was given a heaping plate of fresh bean sprouts, mint, basil, and sawtooth herbs, and I added to my bowl a dash of fish sauce, chili sauce, and black bean sauce. Once I’d let these ingredients steep a little, I was ready to dig in.

How’d it taste? Well, I’m ashamed to admit it, but the broth was so sublime that I almost started gargling it. The beef was better quality than I’ve found in other pho restaurants around Honolulu, but it wasn’t as flavorful as I expected. The beef balls compensated for this, however, and the onions, as well as the herbs and sprouts I added, gave a satisfying textural counterpoint to the soft rice noodles and tender meat. I ordered a medium-size bowl, which was more than enough to fill me, and for only $6 it’s an excellent deal.

Some people complain that To Chau is dirty. But to me, the crusty, decades-old curtains hanging over the windows and walls, not to mention the mildew and water stains on the ceiling, and the permanently food-stained floors, all give the place an air of authenticity. For some reason pho tastes best in hole-in-the-wall settings like this. The cleaner the pho shop, the more sterile the environment and the less interesting the meal. At least no one spits bones and other inedibles on the floor, the way that they (and me, when I’m there) sometimes do in Vietnam. And they haven’t let the place totally founder. The tables have reasonably white tablecloths and glass tops, and there are reminders everywhere that no smoking is allowed.

To Chau is a place for people who know and love pho. What I mean by this is that the restaurant itself specializes in pho, and the pho choices here are extensive. By my count there are fourteen different kinds of beef pho (sorry, no chicken here). They also offer a very limited selection of rice plates and bun (rice vermicelli) dishes, as well as spring rolls, shrimp rolls, and various Vietnamese drinks. Nothing on their menu is over $7.

If not for the annoying fact that it took almost 25 minutes to get my food, I’d give this place five stars. It’s still not as good as pho in Vietnam, probably because it’s just not possible to get all the specific varieties of ingredients the Vietnamese use, but it’s an authentic recreation and the best I’ve had in Hawaii. Ngon qua!

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