Alright, I don’t usually write posts about food I’ve eaten at chain restaurants. In fact, I rarely ever eat at chains; the food is usually pretty mediocre, and the restaurant itself just doesn’t have as much CHARACTER as a normal eatery does. And that applies even more when the restaurant tries to be too many things at once; it’s an identity crisis of the gastronomical kind, resulting in a “fusion” food that is not quite one thing and not quite the other. Blegh.
But y’know, sometimes my family goes somewhere and I’m just dragged along for the ride. And even though I might go unwillingly, there have been times when I’m pleasantly surprised by a chain restaurant.
Like Pho32 for instance. I’m sure a lot of you guys have eaten pho before. It’s a Vietnamese dish, a bowl of hot broth with rice noodles and sliced beef, served with garnishes like sprouts and basil.
See, the thing is, pho in itself is already a fusion of 2 cuisines: Vietnamese and French, very much like the bánh mì. The noodles are a traditionally Asian carbohydrate, whereas the beef hadn’t been used for food until the French colonizers came along. Wow, look at you, learning all this history from my blog.
Anyhow, Koreans (especially those living in the good ol’ U.S. of A.) are enamored with pho. They just can’t seem to get enough of the pipin’ hot bowls of the stuff, even in the dead heat of summer. And my mom and my sister fall right into that category.
But this isn’t pho as you would get it in the streets of Vietnam. Koreans have taken a fusion dish and have added their own flourishes, to better suit the Korean palate. And all these flourishes have been very successful.
So while the food served at Pho32 might not be authentic, it’s pretty darn tasty. And since they’re not making any claims to serve REAL Vietnamese food, does anything else matter? NOPE, IT DOESN’T.
Look at this bowl of glorious, savory deliciousness. This is what everyone else in my family ordered, except me. The pho here comes in 2 sizes, either large or medium (THAT’S RIGHT, NO SMALL FOR YOU). And although I haven’t had it in a while, I remember it being pretty good. Although the appetizers and other dishes at Pho32 might only be so-so at best (except for the shabu-shabu – that’s pretty good too), they do one thing right, and that’s PHO. You can tell because almost 90% of the customers get this dish.
It comes with a side of cilantro, sliced jalapenos, sprouts and a wedge of lime, so you can add as much or as little as you want.
My mom, for example, adds the whole darn plate and then some to her bowl. But other people might not like so much vegetation in their pho.
One thing that everyone DOES add, however, is SRIRACHA sauce. Also called rooster sauce, it is one heckofa delicious condiment, spicy and peppery in all the right ways.
My grandpa adds it.
Or more correctly, my sister added it for him.
My grandma adds it.
And people like my mom, who like their pho blazingly spicy, add so much of it their broth turns an orange-red almost the same shade as the sauce itself.
So please, don’t fight the Sriracha. You just gotta go along with it.
While my family were all digging into their hot bowls of pho, I was digging into something quite different.
Yes, that is what you think it is. KONG GOOKSOO.
I mean come on, if I see kong gooksoo on the menu, you know I’m going to get it. ‘TIS SO REFRESHIN’ AND DELICIOUS.
But this is not your average kong gooksoo. Ohhh, no. Look carefully…
THEY USED RICE NOODLES INSTEAD OF REGULAR WHEAT NOOODLES IN THIS KONG GOOKSOO.
Gasp. This is almost blasphemous, yet genius, at the same time. Who uses rice noodles (the noodles you get in pho) in soybean soup? What ridiculously clever chef thought this up? Because even though the noodles were difficult to separate at first, they were chewier and springier than wheat noodles, or even hot rice noodles, could ever hope to be.
You see, because the rice noodles were in a COLD broth, they retained an elasticity that most noodles lose once they’re cooked past a certain point. I am being completely honest when I say that I have never had noodles this yummy. The texture was completely unsurpassed by anything I’ve had before… And on top of that, the soybean soup was velvety and thick; their addition of peanuts along with the soybeans in the soup gave it a depth and roastiness that most kong gooksoo don’t have.
Yes. This was very delicious.
Please don’t judge me on the ridiculous amount of noodles I’m shoving into my mouth. As good as this was, I couldn’t finish the entire bowl. Kong gooksoo is FILLING, and this portion was ridonkulously big.
But as full as I was, since we were in the PalPark area, I insisted that we go and get dessert at Bbang Goom Teo bakery.
And not just any dessert. The ULTIMATE Korean summer dessert.
Oh yeah, I said it.
PATBINGSOO. Or green tea bingsoo, to be more specific. It’s shaved ice with condensed milk and a ton of fruit on it, with red bean, mochi and ice cream.
I’m not sure if you can tell from this picture, but this is such a ridiculously big bowl of bingsoo. Look, they even had to give us the red bean on the side.
And we had to all dose it out into separate bowls so there would be no danger of fruit and ice overflowing onto the table.
I don’t think this bingsoo tops the one I had at Bizeun in Korea (which is still my favorite bingsoo), but the sheer quantity of this icy dessert makes this an awesome treat. It was about $12 for the entire bowl, which considering the amount of bingsoo and the quality of the fresh fruit that went into it, is an awesome deal. I mean, 5 people could barely finish this thing!
My mom also knew one of the waiters at this bakery, so he gave us 2 breads that had come fresh out of the oven for free. The one you see in the front has a crunchy exterior, almost like a crumble.
The one in the back had a red bean interior that was enveloped a pillowy-soft bread hug. Yes, a bread hug. They were warm and toasty, and as full as my family was from the bingsoo, we somehow managed to eat this little bit of carb heaven…
The funny thing is, this is also a mix of different cuisines. I think that the Korean café culture has really grown by leaps and bounds because it’s taken on bits of American and European influences. Although bingsoo itself is a pretty Korean dessert, in the old days, it was just ice, red bean, and toasted grain powder (misootgaroo). The addition of stuff like condensed milk and ice cream, and even bread is a much more recent development, a result of the crazy globalization that’s been happening the past 2-3 decades.
The fact that we can enjoy such good Korean (albeit semi-Korean) food in America is pretty amazing in and of itself, don’t you think? It might not be the same as actually going to Korea, but it’s close enough to last me through the year until my next Korea trip.
Pho32 & Shabu Shabu
1645 Lemoine Ave.
Fort Lee, NJ 07024
Bbang Goom Teo Bakery and Coffee
7 Broad Avenue
Palisades Park, NJ 07650-1886