The first time I ate phở was during my junior year of high school. Winter's gray melancholy had descended over Virginia Beach, and it was impossible to step outside without shivering from head to toe. When my friend enthusiastically suggested dinner at Phở 79, I was unsure. Growing up, I had never heard of phở. My mom's Italian roots resulted in pasta-heavy meals on a regular basis, while my dad's Southern upbringing influenced his savory seafood dishes. Asian cuisine wasn't something my parents were familiar with, and I had no idea if I would like it. My friend, however, insisted the warm broth would be a heavenly remedy for the frigid weather. Not one to be picky about trying new food, I happily obliged. Walking into Phở 79, my senses were immediately awakened. I could literally feel my sinuses expanding. My lungs filled with the delicious scent of noodle soup, and my mouth began to water. I was hooked, and I hadn't even tried phở yet.
My Vietnamese virginity was soon taken with a large bowl of steaming phở tái and a plate of gỏi cuốn. If it weren't for my friend who was well seasoned on the menu offerings, I would've been completely lost on what to order. My two dishes were very basic, but a perfect introduction to the world of phở. The gỏi cuốn, also known as fresh spring rolls, consisted of shrimp, basil, and vermicelli wrapped in thin rice paper. Dipped in hoisin (topped with crushed peanuts), the rolls were refreshing and packed with flavor. The entree, phở tái, came out within minutes. A huge bowl of beef-flavored broth immersed a bed of round eye steak, rice noodles, onions and scallions. I wearily eyed the accompanying plate of various toppings, opting to leave out the green chili peppers but sprinkling bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime juice on my soup. The end result was fantastic. Each bite emphasized a different flavor within the broth. I even experimented with sriracha, which was delicious in small quantities (my friend, on the other hand, doused her soup with the spicy sauce and raved about it!).
Half my bowl disappeared before I started sinking into the depths of a food coma. My friend was right. The steaming broth warmed me right up, and all I wanted to do was wrap myself in a blanket and fall asleep. It's amazing how filling a bowl of soup can be! I left the restaurant knowing I would be back several times in the near future. Phở was officially my new favorite food.
After moving to Richmond, I knew I had to find a Vietnamese restaurant that would cater to my long-lasting addiction. Six years later, I still crave phở on a weekly basis. Fortunately, a good friend recommended a wonderful restaurant five minutes down the street from my apartment. Phở So 1 was small and cozy, offering quick service and a large menu. I ordered my recent favorite, phở gà (chicken noodle soup) and was overjoyed when my meal arrived. The broth was piping hot, and its flavor exceeded all of my expectations.
Phở didn't change my life simply because of how tasty it was. Instead, it introduced me to foreign cuisine and opened my eyes to how much I love trying international dishes. Before phở, the only Asian meal I had ever consumed was Chinese takeout. Beef and broccoli and chicken lo mein were my favorites, which can hardly be considered authentic. After my revelation at Phở 79, however, I went on to try Korean, Thai, Ethiopian, Japanese, and Indian. Now, my cravings are usually that of the Southeast Asian variety. Chicken pad thai and thom ka gai are my ultimate comfort foods. And when I'm researching a new restaurant to try, I always stray towards a cuisine I've never eaten before.
This mindset rapidly expanded to other areas of my life. Eating new food, trying new activities, and traveling to new places quickly became part of my daily routine. I began to cherish the novelty of new experiences, no matter the activity or the place or the time. Before eating phở, I was fairly content with the ordinary. Little did I know, a thirst for the unknown paired with a huge dose of wanderlust lay dormant inside of my soul. My love affair with phở was a catalyst for my love affair with the world. For that, I'll be forever thankful.