Saigon Summer

Pho Ca Dao

5223 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights

Uh-oh. We over-ordered. I sit staring over the steaming rice-noodle pho soup, the mixed greens, the fresh spring rolls, the grilled shrimp on lettuce, the six fried egg rolls, the salty preserved-plum drink with club soda, the two iced teas.

"Well, we can always pile it into a to-go box," I say.

"No way!" says Hank. "Remember the beetroot juice you tipped on my car's carpet? The beef gravy that leaked out on the front seat? Uh-uh. We eat here."

This was Hank's choice of eatery, of course, his dinero. He's still on his health kick. And right now, for him, Vietnamese is it. He loves the fresh look of the piles of lettuce and mint that always come with the soups. "It just smells healthy," he says.

We wound up here while we were cruising El Cajon Boulevard in Hank's Toyota.

"Say, didn't that used to be an Arby's?" Hank said. He was looking over towards a KFC-type of stand-alone roadside building with a big vertical sign outside. "Pho," it read, and below that, "Ca Dao."

"What time is it?" he said.

"Quarter of three, dude. Lunchtime, and then some. Except I'm, like, Rebecca of Stoney-broke Farm till Friday. Don't 'spose there's any way you could...?"

Hank sighs, swings across the avenue, and parks next to the entrance. We go in and sit down at a brown-and-tan booth. The place is clean, plenty of space, cream-tiled floor, maroon and cream walls, with intricate little wood carvings hanging on them. Water buffalo pulling carts, young women in ao dais, the silky national costume. "Yellow Bird" is pumping out over the sound system in Vietnamese. Surprising how many people there are in here at this hour, slurping away at soups, mostly. The waiter comes up. I'm gonna have a pho -- soup -- of some sort. But Hank is still hemming and hawing. Problem is, the waiter guy doesn't understand a lot of English.

"What about egg rolls?" says Hank, thinking aloud.

"Egg rolls, fine," says the waiter. Scribble scribble scribble.

"Or spring rolls?" Hank murmurs on.

"Spring rolls. Fine."

Scribble scribble scribble.

"Or maybe some mixed vegetables, bok choy, beans, with, say, shrimp. I don't want noodles or rice," Hank says.

"Shrimp, fine."

Scribble scribble.

Result is this banquet fit for a mandarin piled up before us. Hank's dream of mixed veggies with shrimp on the side turns up as grilled shrimp on lettuce ($4.00). We get the deep-fried egg rolls with sweet-pepper sauce ($5.40), but also the raw spring rolls ($3.00), with pink shrimp just visible through the wrap, looking like gestating aliens from Mars.

Me, I got just what I asked for: a pho with beef cooked rare by the hot soup water, and crunchy flank meat ($4.80). Truth is, all of those different bits of the animal they throw in the pho -- like brisket, tendons, tripe -- taste the same to me, only more or less gristly. I just like to think of it as a simple beef broth, with a sweet-salty thing, plus little slabs of beef in it, and noodles, some fresh mint, bean sprouts and peppers, and maybe some of that sweet, plummy Hoisin sauce (think it's fermented soy beans) on top. No big deal. Beef soup, right?

"I eat pho for oily lungs," says the lady in the next booth. She's Chinese-Vietnamese, from Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown. "Pho cuts the fats, the oils," she says. "Along with this Chinese tea. Pho and tea. I need them for my health."

Guy on the other side says the whole beef-soup concept is only about 100 years old. "The name pho probably came from the French word feu, meaning 'fire,' as in pot-au-feu, from when they colonized us."

Plus, it seems, eating beef was introduced by the French. "We never even thought about eating cows before the French," he says. "Cows were our work animals. We loved them. It would be how Americans would feel about eating horses, or dogs."

Huh. I feel more sober about slurping into my pho now. I try a couple of egg rolls in lettuce with sweet ginger sauce and wash 'em down with that salty plum soda. Yes, it's salty, but also rich and sweet, and you can imagine the relief it'd give you in the heat of a Saigon summer. Kind of the mint julep of the East. I only have one of Hank's dee-lish grilled shrimp, while he's polished off both raw spring rolls and their peanut sauce.

"We opened in 2001," says Mr. Thong, the owner, when we go to pay up. (Only twenty buckaroos. Not bad, all that food for two of us.) "We had come to the U.S. in 1990. My father died a year after we arrived here, and I was the oldest son. I had to do something that would take care of my sisters and mother. So I went to the City and asked how to open a restaurant. And the City sent this wonderful man, who came and helped me. All the way. I will never forget him and the City of San Diego. They gave me my dream. I called it 'Ca Dao.' It means 'folk song.'"

Folk Song Café. Nice. Thong's brother Duke manages this place, and they have opened another in Mira Mesa.

"God," Hank says. "So when are we gonna get off our butts and do something?"

"Yeah, man," I say. "Think we need a bit more pho in the belly. Let's come back tomorrow."

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