My pho, before all the sauces
2218 Cable Street, San Diego
I don’t know how O.B. does it. Places like the Joint — packed, noisy, cheap, cool. And now this joint, packed, noisy, cheap, cool. I guess we can only blame O.B.
Tonight, Saturday, 9:30, I’m cruising past in my stretch limo, the Number 35, and you can see the Noodle House is not just crowded but creepy, too. All cobwebbed up for Halloween. So, I ditch all previous plans and jump off the bus. Head in among folk noshing heads-down at sidewalk tables and others waiting for tables or talking on cell phones.
Inside, a couple of seats at the bar are pretty much it, space-wise. I squeeze in between a gal picking at some deep-fried dumplings ($5.95) on my right, and this guy slurping into a pho on my left. In front is this pillar with a sign that reads, “Pho 20 Challenge, $24.20. Got the munchies? 1.5 lbs of noodles, 1 lb of meat & a pint of a Stone beer. Finish it in 00.42:00 — 42 minutes — and the meal is on us.”
Halloween fingers grab the lights above you
They throw in a T-shirt and a spot on their “Pho king champion hall of fame wall,” too.
But I’m more impressed with the rack of draft-beer taps stretching along the back wall of the bar. Barkeep thrusts a little cash-register print-out to me.
“That’s what we have today.”
I count. Forty beers on draft! That’s serious cerveza.
You can hear reggae music somewhere, but mostly the buzz of the place rules. I look around. Those cobwebs are everywhere. Little spindly hands grip the red lights over the red counter and the brick-red bottles of Sriracha sauce dotted along it.
I check the menu. Whole first page is pho.
“First off, what the heck is the way to say ‘pho’?” I ask James, the big bartender. (“I used to do wrestling, and football. Still feel it in my neck.”)
“Phah,” he says, pronouncing it like “far.”
Prices here are great. The pho are mostly seven bucks — and they have 19 of them — and most of the other Vietnamese-Chinese stuff goes from $4.50 to a max of $14.50 (for Korean beef short rib). So much to choose from, but I’ve already decided to stick with pho.
“I’d say definitely Number One,” James says when I asked for the best belly-filler. “That’s the extra large bowl with pretty much everything. Rare steak, well-done steak, brisket, flank, tripe.” I see it costs $7.25, 80 cents more than the standard ones.
But first things first. This beer list has some interesting stuff: Ommegang Fleur DeHoublon Summer Ale ($6), Old Speckled Hen English Nitro Ale ($6), Ironfire Vicious Disposition Porter ($7), on and on. In the end I vote local. Stone’s Enjoy By 10/31/14. IPA, natch. Costs $7.
It’s nice, fresh, but no competition for my beloved gutsy Arrogant Bastard. Still, probably be a nice cooler with my pho. So, I’m about to ask for the Number One Pho, the “O.B. Special (XL),” when I look again at this guy on my left. He’s really digging into his bowl like there’s treasure hidden on the bottom.
“What is it?” I ask.
“The Seafood, number 19, really good.”
I look. “#19. Seafood (shrimp, calamari, and krab), $6.95.” I go for it.
“Standard size?” asks James. “Or extra-large bowl, 75 cents more.”
I go for the standard because, well, it’s cheaper. But still, when the cook brings it, there’s plenty. And, oh yeah. He puts down a second plate. It’s loaded with mega-bean sprouts, mint leaves, slices of jalapeño, and a wedge of lime.
I strip the mint leaves and drop them in, pour the jalapeño slices and bean sprouts in, and squeeze the lime wedge. And then add plum sauce, dark red and nice and sweet. And then squirt some Sriracha in a scarlet circle on top for some heat.
“I can give you some really hot stuff if that’s not enough,” says James.
The wicked-hot Thai salsa
I mix everything, take a few slurps, and then nod. “Yup. Think so.”
He brings a little bowl of an evil-looking mix of green, red, yellow things in an olive-colored liquid.
“Careful,” says James. “This is Thai. Re-ally strong.”
I drop just a few little blobs around the bowl. Oh, mama. He wasn’t exaggerating. It sure brings out my inner fire-breathing dragon.
But it does ping up the flavor of the krab meat, shrimp, and large chunks of calamari. I hold my chopsticks in my right hand and the ceramic spoon in my left. Pick up the long strands of rice noodles and then a piece of seafood, then take a couple of slurps of the soup with the spoon. And, yes, the further down you get, the richer it becomes.
James says the owners are Cambodian. Most of the guys working here knew the sons in high school.
Too late: I realize I should’ve asked for nuoc mam, the Vietnamese fish sauce. Would go so great with this. I’ve loved that stuff ever since Carla, sitting in a plane, dropped a bottle that spilled all the way down the aisle. Stink? The airline banned her for life, of course.
Kitchen closes at ten, but we’re good till eleven. At one point James comes up the bar and to give us barflies samples of kiwi-infused sake. That’s cool of him. What you almost expect in O.B. It’s green, sweet, winey. Nice end to the evening.
I’m the second-to-last out. Hmm... Better check the Number 35 timetable… Whah? Last bus left at 10:14? Oh, no. I’ll have to hoof it to Old Town. Couple of country miles. But, could be worse. What if this had happened in Del Mar?
Prices: Bowl of seafood pho (shrimp, calamari, and krab), $6.95; O.B. Special, extra-large bowl with rare steak, well-done steak, brisket, flank, tripe, $7.25; kaki fry (Japanese oysters, deep fried), $7.95; fried dumplings with pork, shrimp, $5.95; chicken lettuce wrap, $7.95; crispy egg noodles with chicken, veggies, $7.95; bamboo sticky rice, $5
Hours: 12:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m., daily (opens at 11:00 a.m. Friday thru Sunday)