Back in late February, in a life that feels so far removed from the one I’m living now it is almost difficult to feel that it was my own, I was in the process of helping to produce a dear friend’s short film. With spring break just around the corner, it was time to nail some details down and check, re-check, and re-re-check to make sure all was accounted for before the two of us along with one other actor headed up to my parents’ home in New Hampshire for a whirlwind day of filming. As it drew closer to go-time, production check-ins became more regular and in-depth. Luckily, our production meetings often occurred comfortably over dinner and transitioned into a hang session and vice versa. And a favorite spot of ours for both was a short walk away from my dorm.
Nha Trang One is relatively unassuming. When passing by, one’s eye might be more immediately drawn to the Italian restaurant at the end of the block with its large awning and swoopy lettering signaling a comfortable and cozy atmosphere, perfect for a romantic dinner or family celebration. Indeed, my eyes had done just that when attending said Italian restaurant years ago. It was another friend of ours who brought Nha Trang One to our attention in freshman year, and it became a standard in our restaurant repertoire ever since.
Their sign is more of the illuminated plastic variety, the lettering big, bold, and red. A couple of steps down from street level and one is met with florescent lighting and a fish tank mirroring the easy energy that seems ever-present. While I’ve never seen it empty, I would also never describe it as “bustling”. Someone inevitably guides the way to a table and hands you a longitudinally expansive and many-paged menu. I might occasionally make a couple flips through, pretending like I actually need to look, but the order is consistent. We each get an order of Pho Bo and a side of spring rolls to share.
In pre-COVID New York, there could often be a feeling of taking up space. You’re in the subway, trying to make yourself as small as possible, or in a café so densely packed that angling your arm to cut food feels as if you’re being an inconvenience. Even finding the right space in the deceptively open fields of Prospect Park felt like a negotiation of the space you were allowed to hold. This feeling being synonymous with New York in my mind, it is difficult for me to imagine the current opposite being the way of the city. One where personal space isn’t a daydream but a forced means of survival. But in the before times tucked away in Nha Trang One, we layed out scripts, searched our bags (plural!) for pens, and scribbled notes with scarcely achievable relish. There was no need to negotiate, leaving us free to edit and schedule as much as we needed. In that secluded underground space, we’re not made to feel we’re harshing any well-curated vibe. And we’re not packed so tightly against other customers that it feels like they’re involved in the conversation. Despite lacking a clamorous kitchen and tables full of loud customers, there is a rare feeling of privacy afforded.
The food always arrives earlier than expected. This is the only moment of scrambling, but not in a negative sense. There’s a flurry of excitedly brushing away work and clearing space for huge steaming bowls of broth, towering plates of bean sprouts, and six neat spring rolls all in a row. The staff is always patient. Never rushing, just ready.
There is, perhaps, no greater sensation than the first sniff of good pho, especially after walking fifteen minutes in the cold for it. However, even in warmer weather, a big bowl of beef pho hitting the nostrils is enough to make you close your eyes and audibly sigh. It is the essence of comfort. It’s what you want wafting towards you when your nose is stuffy and head is fuzzy, when your stomach is not quite right, when your heart is hurting, when the nerves are wound up tight. It’s a smell that celebrates camaraderie and consoles loneliness. A scent that portends simple indulgence of the senses coupled with a necessary, nourishing gift to the body.
Assembly is a pleasure unto itself. Watching the thinly sliced beef cook gradually as I swirl it in broth with my chopsticks. Incorporating every bean sprout at my disposal. Tearing leaves of Thai basil and nestling them amongst the rice noodles, causing an herbal note to find its way into the meaty perfume billowing up. Lightly dotting the broth with fish sauce and sriracha. Not that it’s particularly necessary. It’s the ritual of the thing that compels me. And besides, give me an opportunity to make something spicy, I’ll take it 9 times out of 10, even if it’s perfectly fine sans heat.
After assembling to our taste with singular focus, the talking can resume over bites of crispy fried spring rolls. Sometimes they’re wrapped in the lettuce on which they sit. Sometimes they’re dipped in the sauce of unknown substance sitting next to them. Sometimes they’re had straight up with no adornment. We transition from the state of pre-meal, to convivial meal-ing.
But only one roll (or maybe one and a half…) is had before the main event can no longer be ignored, and the Pho consumes all attention. Alternating bouts of broth sipping, beef chewing, and noodle-raveling bring together the steaming bowl of comfort. The crunch of the bean sprouts and the respective chew of the rice noodles and beef provide textural interest without challenge. The mouth isn’t made to put up a fight. Just stay engaged.
We work on our bowls slowly. They say that you never enjoy the rest of a dish as much as you enjoy your first bite. And while that first perfect mouthful of broth and noodles is magical indeed, every subsequent one had at Nha Trang One is equally savored. There is no bit of the bowl taken for granted. It is this intention around my pho-eating that compels me to always finish the bowl. There is no such thing as leftover pho in my world. You won’t find me leaving from such a meal with a to-go container full of soup (despite the container’s extreme utility as a storage container). While this always leaves me feeling far more full than necessary, I refuse to fail in relishing every last bit of the care given in the bowl, which simply cannot be done at a future moment. Reheated, the slivers of beef are tough, and the rice noodles over cooked. And while the broth will still pack its flavorful punch, the warmth imbued by the rays of a microwave will not have the same cozy-blanket feeling as that which is piping hot straight from the kitchen of its making. Though, if you are not as attached to this experience, any pho is better than no pho at all, and reheated pho is far better than the sin of pho gone to waste. But leftovers, for me, shall never be.
The bottom of the bowl always comes as something of a shock. Somewhere about ¾ of the way through it can seem like a self-filling container, destined to always have a few spoonfuls of broth waiting to be slurped. But the end does come. Glowing from satiation and communion, we relax in the blissful post-meal dénouement. Any notes left to make are scribbled in notebooks and scripts, ideas and action plans tied up until the next time we rethink them. We gather any last bits of fortification we can from the blessed enclave before paying the check, grabbing a sour apple hard candy (a green gem to be treasured) to suck on while walking and talking our way to some ice cream that is wonderous in its own right, making a night of it and reveling in the energy of ambition and joy fostered by good food.
As quarantine has marched on, I have been craving that warm bowl of broth, noodles, and beef often. But while we are lucky to have some pretty good take out pho available to us just a town over, it’s not the pho alone I’m wistful for when the craving hits. I crave escaping into the warm sanctuary of space from the snow-covered streets of the city. I miss the staff that was always welcoming and gracious. I miss sharing my life with a friend and having theirs shared with me in return as we’re cloistered away from the burdens of either of them. I miss sharing notes and solving problems and feeling lost and found again all in the space of a simple bowl of soup. And while I will gratefully slurp this pho from a plastic quart as a temporary salve, I slurp it in anticipation of the day I find myself at Nha Trang One again, sharing a laugh and a bowl of pho with a friend.
If you find yourself quarantining in the lower east side, order out some pho from Nha Trang One for me. It won’t be the same, but it’s something. And hopefully that’ll help it still be there when we can one day commune together again.