What to do on the 5th of July, when no one is in the office and your stomach may still be a bit annoyed that there was a bloody mary bar in your apartment yesterday morning?
Treat yourself to some pho!
Or at least, that is what I had today for lunch. There's a Vietnamese place I've been itching to try ever since I strolled all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue to Trusty's. Past Eastern Market, at the corner of Pennsylvania and 12th, SE, it's a nice stroll from my office. And since no one is in the office today, I strolled down by myself, and requested a table for one at the Pacific Cafe & Grill (no website, but located at 1129 Penn Ave, SE).
The restaurant was large, spacious, with probably twenty white table clothed tables, and cushioned banquettes running along each wall. There was a large bar in the corner, though it was too early in the day for it to be in use. The decor was a bit eclectic, full of fake trees and paintings that have no running theme, no definitive style. One was an amateurly painted lake scene, one a large photograph of a flower garden...It was nearly empty when I arrived, perhaps because it was the day after the 4th of July, or maybe just because it's past the bulk of businesses and foot traffic in Eastern Market. I was seated at a window table, next to a table of three friends who appeared to also be nursing their hangovers with bowls of pho.
Some people don't like eating alone, but it doesn't bother me. When I was in college, I did some solo traveling in Europe -- one of the very best experiences of my life -- and the trade off for the freedom of traveling by yourself is that you learn to eat your meals alone. I had my book with me, and I was able to order what I wanted, lingering over my summer rolls, and didn't have to worry about splitting up the check when it was all over.
I stuck to the basics, a Vietnamese iced coffee, shrimp summer rolls, and a hot bowl of beef meatball pho. The iced coffee arrived along with the beautiful plate of toppings for the pho -- a plate of different shades of green and white, mung bean sprouts, a lime wedge, dark green jalapeno slices with white seeds, topped with two sprigs of delicate basil. I nursed the iced coffee, sweet with condensed milk, saving most of it as my impromptu dessert it was so rich and sweet -- almost a milkshake.
My shrimp summer rolls arrived, two fat rolls in their translucent rice wrappings, a single scallion poking out of the top, and the pink of two fat shrimp visible underneath the wrappings. They came with a peanut dipping sauce that was too sweet, but the rolls themselves were a bit bland, so I dipped them nonetheless, mixing sweet peanut with the meaty shrimp, cool rice noodles and lettuce.
And then my big, steaming bowl of pho arrived. Admittedly, I'm not an expert at pho. I've actually only had it once before, back when I worked way out in Virginia, past the Beltway even (those were the days of car ownership and stressful commutes). Northern Virginia has a plethora of pho joints, most notably Pho 75, one of whose many outposts I visited when I used to work way out there. But for the city dweller, good pho is hard to find, and I will take what I can get. I ordered the meat ball pho in beef broth, which came piping hot, with scallions, rice noodles and large beef meatballs, strangely spongy and from a totally unidentifiable part of the cow.
I like my pho spicy, and loaded it up with fish sauce and chili sauce, squeezed the lime wedge into it, and added some basil leaves and bean sprouts for the crunch. A stir, a taste, a bit more chili sauce and another good squirt of huac nam. And then hover over the bowl, spooning the spicy sour salty broth, doing my best to eat the rice noodles with chopsticks (and spattering soup everywhere), the steam rising and clouding my glasses. I ate just as much as I could, leaving some broth and noodles at the bottom of the bowl, before turning my attention back to my iced coffee, a sweet note to end the spicy meal.
The service was attentive but unobtrusive. They cleared various plates as I contently read my book, although they seemed to disappear when it came time to get my check. When I finally got the bill, it was a bit more than I usually pay for lunch ($20, tip and tax included), but I also got two courses and a sweet drink. Plus I was treating myself and celebrating the fact that I survived the bloody mary bar, so $20 it is. The hot spicy pho hit the spot, and I left the restaurant satisfied and quite full.