When Don Day and Don Day’s Wife retired, they began to forget what day it was. Except maybe for the days when they are in Toronto. And especially if those days are a Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. Because those days, in order, are their sushi, ramen and pho for lunch days.
When Don Day is in San Miguel de Allende though he seldom has any idea what day it is. Because he has never been able to get sushi, ramen or pho that he considered quite good enough to rate chicken scratches on a calendar.
There have been some closies over the years but I’m sure you know the old line about horseshoes and hand grenades.
As far as ramen and pho are concerned there’s only one restaurant in San Miguel that has them and it’s the only one I can ever remember serving these classic Japanese and Vietnamese soups. The place is Oko Noodle Bar, the Asian restaurant located in Plaza Alhondiga. Pho is important enough to Don Day that he used to venture into Oko occasionally, especially when he was going to be shopping at Mega across the street. Lately, though, Oko pho just hasn’t been quite good enough, despite Don Day’s fairly low expectations.
Don Day’s last time at Oko for pho was again a disappointment. The heart of pho is the beef broth. Oko‘s broth had a broken heart. It was almost tasteless. On that day Don Day decided that Oko was easily phogettable and pho would become an “only in Toronto” dish.
But Don Day spoke too soon. Because one day Don Day was looking at Warren North’s weekly menu at Mi Cocina Creativa. And there was that three letter word.
Could Don Day trust a guy with round eyes to make him pho. I had trusted Warren North to make me Neopolitan pizza despite the fact that he probably can’t sing a note of O Solo Mio. And he’d made almost perfect pizza.
We were on for the pho. And I knew if I could round up enough people, I might be able to talk him into coming to the house and doing it as a catering job.
I emailed The Gentlemen Who Lunch, aka the ROMEOs (retired old men eating out).
Lunch. pho Bac. Bahn Mi. Thursday. 1:00 pm. My house. First 14 are in. YEA or NAY?
Within a few hours we had 15 (including me).
Warren North and I have something in common. People say he looks a little like Brad Pitt. People say that since Don Day grew his goatee he looks a little like Brad’s older brother, Armstrong, or as he’s known for short…yes, you worked it out.
There is something that we do really have in common. Warren North comes from Seattle. Don Day comes from Toronto. They’re a couple of thousand miles apart, but both very close in the size of their Asian populations. Which means that both Warren and Don Day have eaten a lot of Asian food. Which means that both Warren and Don Day have eaten a lot of pho.
Warren told me, “Seattle is known for its rain and cloudy days. It’s the first thing people usually think of when they think of my city and I don’t blame them…’cause it’s true! But the people of Seattle have a small secret that helps us get through those cold, rainy days. And that secret is our huge, vibrant Vietnamese community and the food they cook. It is not uncommon for a Seattleite to curl around a big, steaming bowl of pho a couple of times a week, especially during the winter. It warms you to the soul and for me it brings me back to center.”
Don Day realizes, however, that if you don’t come from Seattle, or from Toronto, or from a city with a large Vietnamese population, you may not even have the foggiest idea what pho is.
We’ll start with a pronunciation. pho rhymes with the word that Don Day says when you ask him a science and technology question. pho is pronounced fuh.
It’s not one of those ancient dishes handed down over centuries. pho began in the early 20th Century in a province southeast of Hanoi. Soon, however, it became the most popular street food throughout the country and, early in the morning and early in the evening, vendors still walk through the streets with mobile kitchens hanging at each end of a bamboo pole.
Pho consists of a meat broth, spices, linguini shaped rice noodles and meat. Beef is the most popular meat. Chicken is the second most popular. Don Day thinks that pho made with beef is, quite simply, the very best beef soup in the world.
Warren North tends to agree, only far more eloquently.
“I have always had a special passion for Vietnamese food. Every aspect of the cuisine excites and enchants me. Almost every dish is accompanied by a multitude of different herbs and the soups are delicately laced with exotic spices and additions of ginger, garlic, and shallots. Everything seems so simple and unassuming at first glance when eating Vietnamese food. But the flavors that come from the food on your first bite explode into a beautiful medley of cinnamon, star anise, basil, and the most rich, deep sweet and savory flavors.
“To me, pho bac or beef soup is one of the greatest culinary feasts known to man. Now please, know I am a chef and not known for hyperbole. I am very serious about that statement. Vietnamese food is hands down my favorite cuisine, anywhere, anytime, period.”
Pho is almost definitely the most popular of all Vietnamese dishes. Bahn mi is almost definitely the second most popular. At the gentlemen’s lunch, we started with bahn mi. In Toronto, bahn mi sandwiches are what you can term a mania, a craze. On the rare night when Don Day has stayed up past Midnight, Don Day has also done another thing he rarely does, line up for food. At Bahn Mi Boys, Toronto’s most popular spot, that line-up is still there (apparently) a couple of hours later.
As far as the specifics of the dish, Don Day believes it’s best to also let Warren North talk the details when it comes to describing bahn mi.
“Like almost any other culinary culture, the Vietnamese also have their take on the sandwich. They called theirs a banh mi and physically it appears to be your average sandwich stuffed in a roll, like a hoagie or simple torta. But what lies inside a banh mi is vastly different.
“My take on banh mi is very traditional and would be very common to find at any Vietnamese deli or street vendor. I start with a regular French roll like you find at the San Miguel supermarket, Mega or at the local bakery, La Espiga. It gets split down the middle, a little mayo is tossed on the inside and it’s put into a hot oven to toast up.
“I then cook the pork filling for the banh mi. I start with coarse ground pork in a hot pan or wok, preferably. Over high heat, I add a multitude of ingredients such as onions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, and siracha hot sauce. The pork filling cooks until it starts to brown then it is set aside. The other meat-based ingredients for a traditional banh mi are head cheese and pork pate. I omit the pate but keep the head cheese which is what I like to describe as a pork terrine sliced very thin that appears like sliced meat you’d get from a deli counter.”
The guys at the table were wolfing down the bahn mi sandwiches until someone asked Don Day what the sliced meat was. When I told them head cheese a couple of them slowed down slightly. When I told them what head cheese was made of, a couple more slowed down considerably. But nobody stopped.
Warren also continued.
“Head cheese has a great texture and adds a strong yet balanced flavor to the sandwich. When assembly comes along, I add to the toasted rolls a slice of head cheese, the spicy ground pork, fresh cilantro, cucumber slices, and finally pickled carrots and radishes I make the day before. I believe that it all comes together to create something much greater than the sum of its parts!”
The pho broth had now been simmering on the stove for a couple of hours and it was driving Don Day crazy. I asked Warren what exactly goes into it.
“Everybody has a slightly different recipe for pho bac depending on preference and region. My recipe for pho bac leans more to northern Vietnam but I’ve added a few things that I love so much about the pho from South Vietnam. To start my pho, I bring about 6 kilos or 13 pounds of beef bones to a boil in a very large stockpot. I then char and peel a lot of ginger and shallots that also go in the pot. Then comes the part where the soup starts to become pho, the addition of all the spices. What I add to pho bac includes coriander seeds, green cardamom pods, true cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, star anise, and fresh baby peppercorns. I toast up all those spices in a hot pan and then wrap it up in cheesecloth with twine that also goes right into the broth. The final addition is a large, hearty cut of beef brisket. That then all simmers away for hours while skimming every 10 to 15 minutes. It is a lot of work but what you have in the end is an incredibly fragrant house and the best beef broth on the planet! The final step before you enjoy your pho Bác is to plate it all up. I start with a very large soup bowl into which I add cooked vermicelli rice noodles, sliced brisket from the broth, fresh bean sprouts, basil, sliced onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and to top it off a few slices of thinly sliced raw dry-aged steak. Then I simply ladle the hot broth over the ingredients which cooks the raw beef and brings everything together!
Don Day wanted to go and put Buddy Can You Spare A Dime on the iPod as all the guys got into the soup line. Pho traditionally also comes with a side bowl containing bamboo shoots, cilantro, basil, lime wedges and hoisin sauce and the extras were there at the end of the line, along with extra sriracha chili sauce for those who, like Don Day, like it hot. Don Day doesn’t have soup bowls as big as Warren would have liked but that was simply solved with seconds. And, for Don Day, thirds.
The Gentlemen Who Lunch called our Vietnamese Day one of our best ever lunch days. That was a little to do with absence of pho in our lives making the heart grow fonder but a lot to do with Warren North’s pho being absolutely phobulous and on a par with Golden Turtle, Pho Hung and Hanoi 3 Seasons, the three restaurants that form the holy trinity of pho in Toronto and where Don Day will be returning to in a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, San Miguel de Allende has Mi Cocina Creativa, Warren North’s food delivery business for their pho. I have no idea when it will be on the weekly menu again but, if there are enough requests, I’m sure he’ll make up a special batch or, even better, if there are enough people, come to your home and prepare it for you as part of his catering business. I think Don Day’s already up to his two allowable puns, but do it pho goodness sake.
Mi Cocina Creativa is located in San Miguel de Allende Mexico. To receive a copy of their full menu and/or be placed on their weekly email for food that’s available for delivery that week, email Warren North at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 415 152 8382.