My only immediate family member in town this Christmas is my brother, Ben. It's been a difficult time for my family, and I figure my brother and I need a home cooked meal. Seeing as how my parents are both overseas caring for my ailing grandmother, this is kind of a conundrum.
While I am adept in the kitchen, the cure I seek is a Vietnamese home cooked meal, and I'm ashamed to say I have yet to master the cuisine. After all, why cook my favorites when mom always does it for me?
Terrible, I know.
So immediately, the next best thing that pops into mind is a return to my family's old stomping grounds of Haltom City. Destination...Café Hop.
When my mother and her family first immigrated to Texas from Vietnam, they set up a home in Haltom City. In this little suburb of Fort Worth, my grandparents and their eleven children cramped themselves in a small four bedroom house, which we lived in until my maternal grandmother's last days. This is the site of my first steps, my first birthdays, and my first meals.
Haltom City has always been a communion of various ethnic backgrounds, most notably (due to a tight Catholic community) Vietnamese immigrants. More importantly, Haltom City is to Fort Worth what Garland is to Dallas--though as years passed, many Vietnamese migrated to Arlington, Plano, and Garland, leaving Haltom City as a distant memory, worn and desolate.
However, Café Hop still stands as an institution in this tattered former Vietnamese hub, a reminder of what once was. Ms. Hoa, the dedicated and tireless proprietor of Café Hop since 1982, is assisted by only one other Vietnamese woman, both taking turns cooking and waiting tables six days a week. Opened in 1979, Café Hop was named after its first owner. When Ms. Hoa, a cook at Café Hop since its inception, bought the business, she kept the name of the restaurant.
The popularity of the restaurant amongst the locals, as well as the feel good double entendre associated with the moniker, made her decision easy. "Hop" means both "compatible," and "satisfaction from eating a certain meal," in Vietnamese.
Knowing that my best friend, Cathy, a Filipina, would enjoy something different than all the other Vietnamese restaurants she has ever visited, I invite her along. She, being miles away from her family, as well, is enticed with my description of the restaurant; "mom and pop"; "greasy spoon"; "home cooked"; "middle of nowhere"; and "smelly."
Disclaimer: If you ever intend on visiting Café Hop, do not wear anything that you particularly like or that requires dry cleaning. Also, you probably won't want to make plans afterward, unless your plans involve a shower and laundry.
As we arrive at Café Hop, Cathy marvels, "Wow, it really is in the middle of nowhere." Situated in a small shopping strip between a burnt down Arby's (my brother is still depressed,) and a used car lot, the only indication that you have arrived at the right place is an old beaten up brown and white sign, blaring a no-nonsense, all caps "HOP." Walking in the restaurant, I notice that very little has changed since all my years of eating here. The 1980's Pac-Man and Galaga arcade machines, which once consumed all of my mother's quarters, are noticeably gone. Everything else remains the same; the sticky and torn booths, the old Vietnamese men dining in the corner by the television set, and the bun-donned woman sitting behind the white counter.
Although there are a few more grey hairs surrounding her smooth face, Ms. Hoa looks as if she hasn't aged. She greets us with a smile and asks me where in the world is her old friend, my mother.
My mom's traveling schedule eternally befuddles Ms. Hoa, who has devoted herself steadfastly to the same life for the past thirty years. Before she lost her husband, Ms. Hoa had dreams of abandoning the restaurant business. However, fate made her a widow and forced her to care for two children on her own. Café Hop is still open, largely thanks to her devotion and to her loyal followers.
I order, as I always do, without glancing at a menu. Not that I even needed to order, seeing as how Ms. Hoa has memorized my usual. Cathy, my brother, and I take our seats in one of the eight tables of the tiny restaurant, my best friend joking that it feels as if she is eating in someone's home.
She's not kidding. There's a stroller in the corner of the restaurant, but no baby.
As Cathy "oohs and ahhhs" over the distinct scent of pork grilling, a huge steamy bowl of noodle soup arrives at our table. As Cathy stares at the dark crimson broth with a look of concern, I ensure her by explaining, "It's called Bun Bo Hue." My brother reassuringly adds, "It's goooood." That it is, especially the famous version served up at Café Hop.
My aunts still drive here all they way from south Arlington to get this bowl of beefy spicy noodle soup. Cathy hesitantly sips a spoonful of the piquant soup and becomes a believer. As Ben happily bogarts the Bun Bo Hue, out comes Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, a dish I order specifically for my pork loving best friend. She squeals (sorry) with delight at the sight of grilled fatty pork and crispy egg roll on a bed of rice noodles, bean sprouts, and greens. I come to terms with the growing evidence that I won't be getting any But Thit Nuong as Cathy starts tearing into it, but before I can despair, my Pho Tai Chin comes out.
Ms. Hoa's pho is perplexing in a good way. It is fatty and undeniably bovine--traits strongly represented in a southern pho, yet it is not sweet. There is nary a hint of spices normally associated with southern pho, yet the only garnishes offered alongside my bowl of soup are cilantro and raw bean sprouts, something one would never see in a northern Vietnamese restaurant.
Seeing as how Ms. Hoa has a vegetable garden stocked full of basil and mint behind the restaurant, I don't think this is oversight on Ms. Hoa's part. Her pho is an exhibition of allowing the main components of a dish shine; expertly cooked rice noodles, eye of round beef, marbled brisket, and broth. My mother, being very old school typical Vietnamese when it comes to pho, rarely eats pho outside of her own, her family's, or tried and trusted restaurants in Vietnam. However, she always says, "If you want a bowl of home cooked pho, go to Café Hop."
Finally, the entree I have been craving the most in these last few weeks makes its entrance. A meal at Café Hop is never complete without a plate of Banh Cuon, rolled rice flour crepes filled with minced mushroom and pork, served with bean sprouts, cha lua (Vietnamese steamed sausage), and fish sauce. When I've been away from Café Hop too long, I dream of soft, chewy, savory, warm crepes melting in my mouth. Ironically, I never have an inclination to order this selection in any other restaurant--and it isn't even my favorite Vietnamese dish.
Perhaps, however, it's one of those things that make Café Hop so special. I associate certain dishes with my grandmother, my mother, or my father. In the same manner, Banh Cuon at Café Hop holds a distinctive position in my food memories.
Maybe that's why Ms. Hoa's pho is the way that it is, as well. Pho holds a special place in every Vietnamese person's heart. By combining a little bit of northern and southern all into one bowl, she can create a sense of home cooked magic for her patrons, regardless of what region from which they come.
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