Pho Hoa Binh
1615 Madison Avenue
“Have you ever eaten there?” Warren asks everytime we drive down Madison and pass Pho Hoa Binh.
“In college,” I say.
“Is it good?” he asks.
“I don’t remember,” I say. Then add, “I think my sister said she had a piece of glass in one of her eggrolls or something.”
Still, I can tell he wants to go. So one night I suggest we do just that. “Hey wanna go to that Vietnamese place across from the Pig?” I ask.
“Yes!” he says enthusiastically and off we go.
As we drive up, I have to say that I have never noticed the very large sign out front that reads, “We Serve Vegetables.” I like that. I’d like to see a sign like that outside of every restaurant.
When we open the door, I notice a little Goner Records sticker on the door. I like that too. I’d like to see a sticker like that on every resta…okay moving on. Inside it was very quiet despite there being lots of tables full of happy people. I didn’t see any other kids and immediately felt a bit of a death stare coming my way. Or maybe we just didn’t look cool enough to be in a place clearly catering to hipsters (some of them aging).
I directed Team Oster to a table near the back and hoped we could eat without drawing too much attention to ourselves. As usual, all members of Team Oster were very hungry and a little cranky. (I was tense on top of it all.) Jiro (age 3) immediately unrolled his napkin and happily announced, “I have a knife!” Satchel (age 5) took his gum of out his mouth and inexplicably stuck it on his arm.
Warren and I weren’t communicating very well and it was unclear who exactly was deciding what the kids should eat. The menu is quite extensive and has both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. We started off by ordering a round of waters. They arrived in giant glasses. I asked our teenage waiter (presumably the son of the owner) if they had any kids’ cups (i.e. Styrofoam or just smaller glasses) and he said no. I then went on Official Spillage Alert, which makes me 15% less fun to be around than normal. Warren ordered his usual vermicelli dish with pork, eggrolls, and vegetables (#155). I went with the Bun Bo Xao (#156) which I thought was the same dish I order at Pho Vietnam. I also ordered some hot & sour soup, two eggrolls to share, egg drop soup for Satchel, an order of chicken wings for the boys to share, and a Vegetarian Delight just for the hell of it.
Warren immediately looked at me like I was insane. “Why did you order all of that?” he asked. “They aren’t going to want chicken wings.”
I decided to keep my mouth shut.
While we waited for our food, Jiro continued to do things to make me tense, like fidgeting, dangling his arm near his giant glass of water, and getting in and out of his chair entirely too often. Satchel, who I decided I must never sit next to again, was sitting as close to me as humanly possible despite having his very own seat. It is as though I have a magnetic force around me that draws him in. He sits on the edge of his seat and leans towards me, elbows outstretched, so as to make me feel more than a tad claustrophobic. My “Honey, scoot over…honey, sit up straight…honey, move your elbows…” was meet with general grumpiness and his signature grunts of dissatisfaction.
When the soup arrived, everything took a turn for the better. Satchel’s egg drop soup was huge, very hot, and decidedly good. “Man, this soup is yummy!” he exclaimed. This aroused interest in Jiro, who decided he wanted some too. Because of the girth of Satchel’s bowl, I decided to pour some into a smaller bowl for Jiro. As you might imagine, he did not like this. I did it anyway. Then, Jiro took one bite before declaring it not to his liking. Satchel had no interest in having the soup back, even when he finished his, because (of course) it was contaminated with Jiro’s germs.
My hot & sour soup was quite tasty and very hot. It had a ton of tofu in it and I tried unsuccessfully to get Jiro to eat some of it. (He’s been having days where he simply doesn’t want to eat anything unless it is a popsicle.)
Next, the eggrolls arrived. They too were extremely hot. (Are you noticing a theme here?) I can handle hot food, but Satchel and Jiro were not going to risk burning their delicate fingers or tongues. Our entrees and the CRAZY HOT chicken wings came out shortly after the eggrolls. Warren said his vermicelli wasn’t as good as Pho Vietnam’s, but it didn’t stop him from eating every bite of it. My dish wasn’t what I expected; it was actually better. It was a delicious combination of the spicy lemongrass beef dish I get at Pho Vietnam and the crowd pleasing vermicelli noodles with vegetables. Both Warren and I tried to get the monkeys to try some noodles and/or vegetables, but neither was interested.
However, they were both every much interested in eating the chicken wings, but they were so freaking hot that none of us could try them. The order consisted of six giant fried wings that looked delicious. I decided to pull a couple apart so that they would cool off quicker and it was hard. I burnt my fingers a few times and was only partially successful. Nevertheless as soon as a chunk of chicken stopped visibly steaming, one of the monkeys popped it in their mouths.
Luckily the Vegetarian Delight came with white rice--our safety. Both monkeys are perfectly content to eat large bowls of rice with soy sauce. And so they did. Neither would go for any vegetables due to the heavy sauce they were floating in. (Warren and I thought they were tasty, but I can see how they were a bit beyond the monkey’s young palates.)
With all of our food and the giant water glasses, our table was quite crowded—almost comically so. Amazingly we had no spills or major burns—just a few shrieks and cross words (i.e. “Watch out for the flaming hot food in front of me when you reach for that giant glass of water!!”)
No dining with monkeys experience would be complete without a trip to the bathroom. Jiro needed to go “pee-pee” and I was the lucky one who got to accompany him. The entire experience is a bit of a blur, but what I marked in my notebook is “bathroom: semi-nasty.”
Our waitress (presumably the daughter of the owner) told us that her mom had gone out for oranges and asked us to please wait a few minutes before paying our tab. Okay…I decided to contain the monkeys with fortune cookies. I always think it is funny to read their fortunes. Satchel’s read: You are capable, competent, creative, and careful. I’d say that about sums him up, although I the question the “careful” at times. (Admittedly he is miles more careful than his sibling Jironimo.) Jiro’s read: Good things come in invisible packages. You will be delighted. I have to say that is one of the most imaginative fortunes I have ever read. Mine was: You are very persistent in pursuing your goals in life. I doubt anyone who knows me could question that. (Warren’s was either kept secret, hidden, or freed itself from my notebook, so I cannot share it with you, dear Internet.)
After this little exercise it became apparent by the extreme fidgeting by Satchel and the refusal to sit down by Jiro that our time at Pho Hoa Binh was up. Much to the young waitress’ distress, I informed her that we’d need to go orange-less and that it was okay. We took our many to-go boxes and headed towards the door. (We did have to make a brief stop to purchase each of the monkeys a piece of candy filled bubble gum in the machine next to the door.) As we were loading the monkeys into the car, a woman carrying a large bag of oranges was walking towards the restaurant door. She saw us and immediately ran over and handed us each an orange while apologizing profusely. She went in and then the waitress came back and said, “Please wait here, I can cut an orange up for you really quick.”
“Uh, okay,” we said, now feeling as though we were in a very bizarre movie or reality TV show. I tried to hand the waitress one of the oranges that her mom gave us, but she refused. We sat in the car for about a minute and she returned with a to-go box filled with sliced oranges. We thanked her and made a point to open the box and eat one in front of her.
Warren and I looked at each other and both had the same thought. Maybe we need to Google this and see why eating the orange is so important. I've googled, but haven’t found anything earth shattering. Most sites simply state that desserts are not common in Chinese cuisine and that a meal is ended with sweet fruit instead to refresh one’s palate. I did also find that dishes made with oranges represent wealth and good fortune because they are China's most plentiful fruit. So maybe they just really wanted to wish us good fortune. I’m cool with that.
p.s. Our leftovers lasted us many days and once the chicken wings were cooled off, they were instantly devoured by the monkeys.