Pho From Home: Tien Giang Restaurant

Bombarded with work and handicapped by a restrictive schedule for the past few weeks, the blog writer had been subsisting on a diet of pizza and Subway. Nights consisted of depressing jogs on treadmills in artificially lit fat labs, followed by nightly visits to her local chain deli.

Cold, wet, and bored to death with her recent one dimensional meals eaten in front of flickering television sets, the blog writer craved a warm bowl of noodle soup. She dreamed of steaming hot bowls of broth, preferably of the fish sauce variety, filled with gratifying carbs and nourishing proteins. Late one particularly dreary and drizzly night, she tells her friend and broth cohort, "There is this place we have to go to. It's somewhere in the seedy part of town. Do you mind if we go?" Her friend, on a broth diet for a dreaded and impending stint as a maid of honor, quickly consents.

As they drove farther away from familiarity, the windshield wipers screeched across the glass in unison with the erratic rain fall, and the streets became darker and more deserted. There was a restaurant here somewhere, near a lonely Burger King.

Directly across the street from the fast food place sat a small fluorescently-lit restaurant in a tiny dark lot. The sign atop the elusive restaurant assured the cautious diners that they were indeed at the right place, "Tien Giang Restaurant-Vietnamese Food To Go."

And that is where I ended my foray in to the mystery hybrid short story genre.

If it continued, the story would describe in gruesome detail one of the worst meals I've ever had in my life.

In the midst of writing my piece this week, I came to a crossroad. Do I hack into a small family owned establishment in a cheeky but cruel fashion or do I try to get an understanding as to why someone else loves the same very restaurant? I have to admit, there are weeks that I censor what I write as to not become the old cranky pho maid.

Objectively speaking, however, the restaurant is dirty--not hole in the wall dirty, just unsanitary. The restroom is frightening. The dining area reeked of cigarettes. The food is terrible and very expensive, given the location.

My friend even commented on how overpoweringly sweet her pho was. Upon tasting it to see if she was right, her pho broth was as sweet as the broth in my Hu Tieu; Two completely different noodle soups, one very wrong similarity.

The broth was not the only miss, as both our bowls contained only trace amounts of protein.

For a grand total of $18.50 for two bowls of soup in a sketchy neighborhood, I expect more.

I take no comfort in knowing that what I write may affect someone's business or feelings, so I take care to see that there are no arbitrary or cruel judgments dealt out. The owners of the restaurant were friendly to us, if not a bit overly so seeing as how we were the only patrons at the restaurant on a Saturday evening. They encouraged us to come back to try their chicken wings with fish sauce--which I found foreboding, as we had just received our bowls of soup.

Whenever I visit a restaurant like this, there is always one barometer to which I measure it. The standard, in my eyes, is my father's own Chinese restaurant from my childhood. My father's restaurant survived in a decaying neighborhood for eighteen years. Many arguments between my mother and father revolved around raising the prices on the menu in order to keep up with the times, but my father would never budge. As the glorious neighborhood in which I grew up slowly morphed from country club opulence to section eight poverty, my father's restaurant withstood the test of time, remaining open for those who stayed behind, as well as for those who had moved to Southlake, Colleyville, or Dallas but who would make the journey back for their favorite Chinese.

Businesses closed all around us and crime grew rampant (my father was held at gunpoint a few times), but for him, the restroom could never be clean enough, the carpets had to be steamed regularly and the food served had to be excellent. Through the years, celebrity visitors such as Rene Syler would grab a corner booth, order their favorites and gossip with my father. The crowning moment for my parents was serving a dinner party for the Bass the hood.

Growing up American, I always argued for going the faster and easier route. My parents drove me insane with their perfectionism. As an impatient person, it made no sense to me, yet it subtlely affected me and my tastes. His insistence on making his own chili sauce, all while coughing into a towel, his eyes overflowing with tears, made me appreciate simple details that are not all that simple. His hours standing up over an industrial sized kitchen counter kneading, cutting, and rolling out from scratch made dumpling and potsticker skins refined my eye and palate. My mother's horror at my suggestion that she uses a bullion cube opposed to her boiling a chicken for hours taught me that the best pho is the natural pho for which one waits.

This brings me back to Tien Giang. I should hope that anyone who opens a restaurant, no matter what cuisine, would put their heart, sweat, and tears into it--fretting over everything from the important stuff (food), to the details we never think about like, well, the food. Because at the end of that scary, cold, and damp evening, I would not have cared about anything else had the food been excellent.

Seeing as how I spent close to all of my writing stipend for the meal didn't help matters. Just because we live in Dallas, we shouldn't have to pay for Dallas prices just anywhere. I don't mind paying for a great meal, but it's unfortunate that many Dallasites feel as if this is what they MUST pay.

This made me think about why someone wrote to say that this was a good spot to visit on my pho tour. I was anxiety ridden over this write up all week as my looming deadline approached closer and closer. I don't want to scare off future suggestions because I do appreciate it all so very much.

I do this myself, and it's a good exercise: when you like a restaurant or a specific dish, ask yourself why. Just what is it that strikes you. It helps you understand your palate.