Rick is about as big and wiry an ex-Marine as you’ll find this side of Iwo Jima. A year back, he was in Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan, training Pashtun police. No roads in, no Starbucks hangout. Heat, dust, and, you can bet, gnawing anxiety for 12 months.
So imagine him here, now, in deepest Chula Vista, lifting a chunky pinkie as he brings a Victorian bone-china porcelain teacup to his lips and sips.
“They brewed tea for us about a hundred times a day in Afghanistan,” he says. “That was the strongest drink around. Taste-wise, it was pretty strong, too — what did you say this one was?”
He’s asking Janet, who runs this place — My Cup of Tea — more for love than for money.
“It’s Darjeeling, from Darjeeling,” says Janet. “In the foothills of the Himalayas of India and Nepal.”
“Well, it’s a whole lot better than what I had over there,” says Rick. “And would you look at these cups.”
Man, he’s right about that. We’re sipping out of ornate little teacups straight from the pages of a Jane Austen novel.
It’s been a tea day, here in DCV (deepest Chula Vista). We drove down earlier in Rick’s classy Camry convertible, headed for one of his regular dives.
349 Broadway, Chula Vista
Turns out, it wasn’t no dive, but a cozy li’l Vietnamese noodle house I’d never noticed before. The Pho Vinh.
“Check the menu, A2 and A9,” he said as we swung in through the door to this sky-blue-and-mustard place. First thing you notice: a big 3D mural of a procession of workers from back in the day, maybe 2000 years ago.
“That’s Chinese, not Vietnamese,” says Katherine, the manager. “It was here when this was a Chinese restaurant, ten years ago. We decided to keep it.”
Rick and I sit down at a black marble table, in one of the maroon-and-cream booths. When Vinh, the waiter, comes up, Rick says “A2, A9,” and Vinh nods. It’s what Rick has pretty much every time. I check the menu. “A2” is two spring rolls packed with shrimp, pork, vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, and lettuce leaves, $3.75. “A9” is shredded chicken salad ($7.50).
Spring rolls? For some reason I’m thinking they’ll be deep-fried…but before I can get lost in the menu (it has maybe 50 items), the elderly waiter brings Rick’s plate of A2. And, whoa, it’s the raw rolls, with a thin half-transparent rice-paper wrap. The shrimp inside look like pink alien babies about to pop out and take over our planet.
“Lawdie,” I say. “Gotta have that.”
So, now we’re sitting here with two spring rolls each. Man, how delish — it’s that savory peanut dipping sauce. I’m already almost all filled up and only $3.75 out-of-pocket.
But when Rick gets his A-9 — the shredded chicken salad (with white chicken meat over a bed of shredded cabbage, banana blossom, onion, carrots, and something called rau ram) — I’m hungry all over again.
What is rau ram? Vietnamese mint. I swear, it’s their favorite herb. But what makes this chicken salad look and smell so great is the roasted peanuts and fried shallots on top, along with nuoc mam, the famously fishy-smelly Vietnamese fish sauce.
I need something to compete with Don Ricardo here. Pho soups’re out. Weather’s too hot, though the price is right: most go for around $5.80. So I head to the steamed-rice section and order a BBQ pork (which comes with soup, anyway) for $6.35.
It’s densely tasty. The pork has a burnt, BBQ flavor that keeps you permanently picking. The bowl of fish sauce makes it even sexier.
Oh, and I order a pot of hot tea ($1).
The waiter brings the pot, with two little white bowls to drink from. It almost feels like sipping hot sake. ’Course, the taste’s different. It’s a little bitter, not sweet, unlike the tea I usually drink. There’s something about hot strong tea, no sugar, no milk, ’specially when you can keep topping up and warming it from your own pot. That feels manly. It makes for a great social atmosphere. I pump Rick for Afghanistan stories, and he gives a graphic picture of a year spent in a little bunker in the middle of nowhere, with live-fire ammo shells coasting overhead and an actual live fire burning near where he slept, with a teapot dangling and steaming over the flames.
Here in the Vinh family’s little cultural outpost, Katherine explains that Rick’s chicken meat is white because that’s how Americans like it. “We Vietnamese prefer the dark meat, cooked with the organs and the stomach and bones, because it makes the flavor so much better.”
She says the difference between food here and food in Bien Hoa, where she’s from, is that here the chicken and pork and beef start off as frozen meat. “But back home, you ask for chicken, we grab a live chicken and zzzt! Off with its head and into the pot! Result: fresh, fresh meat. So much flavor. Same with pigs. Kill them in the morning and eat that night. That’s what a lot of Vietnamese miss.”
Well. Nothing another slurp of tea can’t fix.
That’s what gives Rick the idea. “Hey. You into tea? I’ll show you tea.”
Soon, he’s angling the Camry into a parking spot in front of this cute little shop: My Cup of Tea.
Coming soon: Secrets of the tea world.
The Place: Pho Vinh Vietnamese Noodle House, 349 Broadway, Chula Vista (between F and G Streets), 619-422-6189
Prices: Two spring rolls, $3.75; well-done flank pho soup, $5.85; shredded chicken salad, $7.50; curry chicken with rice vermicelli, $6.65; shrimp fried rice, $7.35; BBQ pork banh mi sandwich, $3.75
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., seven days
Nearest Bus Stop: Broadway at F
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Bayfront/E Street