As I write this, the film version of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation is playing in theaters across the country. Schlosser's book is a damning indictment of every aspect of the fast-food industry, from the health risks obvious to anyone who has wolfed down a Big Mac and super-sized fries to the slaughterhouse sanitation issues we'd rather not think about. (Note to those planning to see Fast Food Nation: You might want to skip the popcorn and soda.)
The dark joke at the heart of Fast Food Nation and another recent work, The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, is that fast food isn't fast at all. That Happy Meal is the end product of a long industrial process that could probably produce ball bearings or nuclear weapons with equal facility.
At least that Big Mac or Whopper or whatever gets the job done, right? It's comfort food. But Pollan argues that the fast-food industry doesn't sell comfort food; it sells the idea of comfort food. "So you eat more and eat more quickly," he writes, "hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger or French fry as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full."
I highly recommend both books. But neither addresses the fundamental dilemma of our eating habits here in America: No matter how well-intentioned our food choices might be in an ideal world, most of us need at least one meal a day fast. I mean, like, five minutes ago fast.
We do have more choices than we did even a few years ago. Fast-casual joints have been opening in St. Louis or, more often than not, its suburbs at a nice clip, offering fresh, relatively healthy, though not exactly exciting, food for a decent price.
Assuming the meat is good (if not impeccably sourced), a thin burger patty grilled on a flattop is a simple, sublime pleasure. Tacos al pastor from a Cherokee Street taquería can pack as much flavor as the tasting menu at Chez Frou Frou's.
But for a fast, satisfying, incredibly flavorful and almost unbelievably cheap meal, you can't beat the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. You just can't. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, hot weather or cold. Better yet, you won't feel guilty that it's "fast." It comes to your table that quickly because the broth has been simmering for hours in the back, bubbling itself ever closer to perfection.
Pho isn't new. It isn't trendy. It isn't difficult to find. Any Vietnamese restaurant worth patronizing serves it, often in several different variations. But the problem is that pho is usually listed at the beginning of the menu, with the spring rolls and other appetizers. If you're not familiar with Vietnamese cuisine of if you believe (mistakenly) that you're not in the mood for soup you might miss it.
I was lucky. Before I'd had much experience with Vietnamese cuisine, I read Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour. In the essay "The Burn" he asks, "Is there anything better to eat on this planet than a properly made bowl of pho? I don't know. Precious few things can approach it." Even after filtering for Bourdain's usual overstatement, I knew pho was something I had to seek out.
If only I'd known about Pho Long. This tiny storefront restaurant in the Jeffrey Plaza strip mall just east of the intersection of Olive and I-170 offers ten kinds of pho and almost nothing else.
Pho is essentially rice noodles, meat (usually beef, though sometimes chicken or seafood), onions and scallions in a light beef broth. But that's like saying foie gras is essentially fattened goose liver. The broth comes flavored by any number of spices. In good pho no one spice dominates though usually, as at Pho Long, there's a pleasant residual brightness from coriander or ginger or some combination of the two.
Because pho is traditionally considered a "fast" or street food, the meat is usually a "lesser" cut of beef best served by a long stewing time. At Pho Long your choices are eye round steak, flank steak, "well-done" brisket, oxtail or meatballs. You can order each by itself; you can also order the eye round steak with either the meatballs or the brisket.
The meatballs aren't meatballs in the Western sense. They have the density and texture of kielbasa and a very earthy flavor. I liked these, but if you're wary, try them combined with the eye round steak. This, the flank steak and the brisket are most familiar to Western tastes. Each has been sliced thin and is tender but has enough bite remaining to stand out texturally among the other ingredients. There's also pho gà (i.e., pho with chicken), which I didn't try.
Best is pho duôi bò: pho with oxtail. Whether because of the name "I don't eat the tail," a friend declared when I offered him my oxtail dish at Sweetie Pie's a few weeks ago or because they're often classified as offal, oxtail has a bad rap. That's such a shame. Though you have to work a bit to separate the meat from the bone, it has a delicious, rich, roasty-sweet flavor.
If you're feeling especially hungry or ambitious, you can order pho con rong cháu tiên, which includes the eye round, brisket, meatballs and oxtail as well as tendon and tripe. (You can also get this without oxtail, though if you're willing to eat tendon and tripe, I can't imagine why you'd object to oxtail.)
When I ordered this, I figured I'd receive just a little bit of each kind of meat. That wasn't the case; there was a lot of meat in this pho. Too much, really. The subtle flavors of the herbs, especially, were buried. Despite its fearsome reputation, the tripe was innocuous, more texture than taste. The tendon, on the other hand, was nothing but texture: chewy, squishy like a molten Gummi bear.
I'll skip the tendon next time. But part of what makes pho so enjoyable is that it's customizable. Even if you know exactly what you do and don't like, you'll never eat the same pho twice.
With every order comes a dish with a big pile of bean sprouts, basil, ngo gai (an herb similar to cilantro in flavor), sliced jalapeño chiles and a lime wedge. I add everything but the bean sprouts. Even after they've been dunked in the broth, they still have that raw vegetable flavor, which I find distracting though when the pho is as good as Pho Long's, I'll usually toss in a handful at the end to prolong the experience. I also like healthy squeezes of hoisin sauce and sriracha, the bright red Thai hot sauce.
Still, I worry sometimes that I haven't got the proportion of hoisin to sriracha to lime to jalapeño. And that's why I send you to Pho Long with a note of caution. Sort of like the ideal cheeseburger and French fries that Michael Pollan describes, you may find yourself obsessively chasing the perfect bowl of pho. This, thankfully, is a pursuit that gets better with every happy meal.