Monday, December 19, 2005

Pho - Lost in Translation?

"The fact is, that here is a new product that is American."
-Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"

The Houston phone book has 34 restaurant that begin with "Pho" -- restaurants like: Pho Bin, Pho Bellaire, Pho 518, Pho 45, Pho 95, Pho 99, Pho-Nga, Pho Lieng Fast Foods (alliteration!), and Pho 21. My favorite name is the confusing "Pho 21 #110." Does that mean it is the 21st Pho restaurant or the 110th Pho restaurant? Where are the other 109 Pho 21 restaurants that came first?

I try to be an adventurous eater. But my first experience in a Pho shop 15 years ago was a little too adventurous. I walked in the crowded restaurant by myself and noticed I was only non-Vietnamese customer. The waitresses all looked at each other, wondering who might be able to communicate with me. One drew the short straw. She brought a menu with 50 choices, helpfully labeled A1 - A25 and B1 - B25. Each item had a different name in Vietnamese script. Each item also had an English translation. Items A1 - A25 were all translated the same -- "noodle soup with steak." Items B1 - B25 also were all translated the same -- "noodle soup with meat ball." The Vietnamese lettering told of 25 variations that I could not read. The English translation glossed over the differences, giving me no choice but to pick randomly or ask. So I asked the waitress which "noodle soup with meat ball" was the best. She said, "you like this one" and pointed to B7. As promised, I liked it. I wondered, though, what I missed by not ordering one of the other 24 items called "noodle soup with meat ball."

The French have many different words for the different emotions that we call "love." The Inuit have many different words for the different substances that we call "ice." Perhaps the Vietnamese have many different words for the food we call "noodle soup." I despair that there are no English words that can describe all the wonderfully different variations of Pho.

I ate lunch today at Pho Bui. Pho Bui is in downtown Houston, under the shadow of a scyscraper. The staff probably were all raised in America, speaking English. The crowd is the usual mix of Americans -- caucasian, african-american, asian-american, latino-american, professionals, secretaries, office assistants. Now everyone eats Pho. Heck, I even saw a Pho restaurant in Beaumont.

Even now, the different Pho items can be a little confusing in translation. One soup is listed as "noodle soup with meat balls." Another is "noodle soup with beef balls." What is the difference? Is a "beef ball" a meat ball made with beef? If so, what meat is used to make a "meat ball"? I am a little worried about trying either. I do not want to eat a beef's balls, and I do not want to eat a ball of unidentified meat.

Other menu items are listed as "noodle soup with tripe" and "noodle soup with tendons." I would have used English words other than "tripe" or "tendons." When I think of delicious food, I do not think "tripe" or "tendons." So I usually get something safe at Pho Bui like "noodle soup with eye of round." I know what that is. I know I like that one.

The "tripe" and "tendons" probably will be deleted on Pho Bui's next version of their menu. No one orders them. So the menu will almost certainly change. That is the market. That is Americanization. That is how we turned Italian food into spaghetti and pizza, how we turned the subtle and rich cuisine of China into the egg roll and the all-fried, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. It also is how we have created some remarkable fusion cuisine. Perhaps I ought to order the "noodle soup with tendons" before it is lost forever, before I have to travel to Saigon to find it, before every Pho shop in Houston sells "noodle soup with fried chicken tenders."

Pho Bui is quite good. But there are at least 34 other restaurants where you can get Pho in Houston. All of the ones I have tried are good. Honestly, I cannot quite tell the difference.


Anonymous said... that you've learned the reasoning behind the numbers in the name, and now that it's been almost two and a half years, have you tried pho since?

I know that tendons and tripe sound gross, but they're actually really good. You'd never know what part of the animal they were. Plus, I wouldn't expect to see them off the menu any time soon since they're the traditional Vietnamese favorites for pho ingredients. ;)

And the meatballs.....there are many differences. But we'll save that for another day. :)

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