Dive bars get all the love these days, even when they're so full of hip-seeking douche missiles that the gin-swilling regulars are pushed out to linger by the doors, chain-smoking Old Golds and wondering what happened to their favorite watering hole. These bars are, admittedly, excellent so long as they remain dives, and don't start catering to the fickle crowds searching for that whiff of whiskey-sodden history and reality that lends a dive its particular cachet. Basically, the minute some dim hole-in-the-wall starts serving more Jäger-and-Red Bull than bourbon and branch, it's done.Dive restaurants are trickier. People get weirded out when they see a joint that's too old, too run-down, or too skeevy. They start thinking that its neighborhood, crowd, or exterior equates somehow to its cleanliness or talent in the kitchen, when in actuality it's typically the reverse that's true.Often the sketchier an area is, the more interesting the cuisine.The first time I went to Pho Bac, two guys were smoking crack in the bus shelter on the sidewalk. You could smell its burnt-plastic stink from the parking lot, but I was there for soup, and had a bowl of pho tai that was just amazing. I finished my late lunch about the same time they finished their rock. When I came back outside, the two were still there, pacing the length of the shelter and slapping at their pockets like they were expecting the crack fairy to make a special delivery and wanted to catch her before she got away.The second time, I went for breakfast. It was quiet—after the morning rush, but before most of the other restaurants in the area had woken up for the day. I sat at a table near the blunted point of the strange, triangular shop and watched the gray clouds roll in over Little Saigon while I waited for the slow drip of my Vietnamese coffee. It was peaceful, a small moment of Zen calm to begin the day. A radio was running through a classic-rock playlist arranged by a DJ who'd obviously suffered a recent traumatic brain injury—Blues Traveler, followed by the Bangles, then the Scorpions doing "Send Me an Angel."I ate a small bowl of pho ga (new to a menu that hasn't changed a bit since the '80s), and didn't like it as much as the red-meat varieties. The chicken didn't have the heaviness, flavor, or weight of will to stand up to the complex, murky broth, the competing spices, the cilantro sprinkled on top. Still, it was better than most of the pho I've had over 10 or 15 years of eating and cooking it, and being entranced by the million small variations in this pho and that pho from this or that region or old family recipe. It was good, but the pho tai had been better.When I left, the radio was just rolling into Creedence's "Fortunate Son." Rain, which had threatened for an hour, started to fall. With my car windows rolled up, I steamed the glass with breath that still smelled of anise, chiles, and cilantro.My next time through Pho Bac, I ate pho gau with beef brisket—tough enough to stand up to the steaming-hot broth, but seeming to melt away to nothing the minute it touched my tongue. I mixed it with bo vien—little meatballs, boiled and split in half and squeaky against my teeth, because one of the fantastic things about Pho Bac is that it's prix fixe. Kind of. The menu—a plastic board, hung on the back wall, of the sort that used to exist only in sandwich shops, which was what this little bunker of a restaurant at the triangular intersection of Jackson, Boren, and Rainier used to be—offers two prices: small bowl and large bowl. And into those two sizes you can have the kitchen dump pretty much whatever you want from the list of ingredients.I drank lemonade—which is 50 cents, no lie—because the sun was out and its bittersweet bite matches the hot broth so well. I slurped noodles while sitting surrounded by Vietnamese families who were constantly adding sprouts or basil or lime or hoisin, and studying their bowls with a fixity bordering on OCD. I sat down, ordered the large, got my soup, ate, and was gone—all in less than 20 minutes, and for just 10 bucks.Like moths, dive restaurants have micro-climates all their own: a terroir of cracked pavement, exhaust fumes, neighboring hair salons, and oddity. Out of their natural environment, they would wither and be gone.On prime real estate, a pho shop couldn't survive selling $7 bowls and nothing else. It requires a certain smallness, cheap rent, a home team crazy for what you're selling, and a relentless focus to make the economics of that kind of operation work out over the long haul.The original Pho Bac (now one of four locations, but still the most austere and pure) is fundamentally unchanged from the day it opened, under a small sign in an old sandwich shop, serving beef noodle soup and offering a few long, brown cruller-shaped loaves in a case by the door for those looking for a true French-Vietnamese experience. On a good day, when the heat is rising and the fitful sun makes an appearance, the ladies working the galley will open the back door to catch a little breeze. The gleaming silver rotary slicer, from which falls the sliced top round that makes up the pho tai, is set up right by the back door. From the parking lot, you can watch them working, leaning into the machine, prepping bowls with a speed that borders on magic.Pho Bac has been around since the '80s. It was the first introduction to pho for a lot of Seattleites. Regulars who've eaten everywhere else in the city still call this tumbledown shack their favorite. They talk about the days when the music was nothing but acid rock and Vietnamese pop covers; when people who'd never tasted pho were first hipped to the idea of eating soup for breakfast. They have their favorite tables, favorite servers, and favorite combinations of tendon, sliced beef, tripe, meatballs, and brisket—and swear their version is the best and brook no argument.I wouldn't quibble with any of them. Pho Bac is not a pretty restaurant, but it's serviceable. The tables are clean, the chairs match. When the crew is doing prep or unloading boxes of ingredients from the market, the whole place can smell like basil or sambal or steam. The neighborhood is home to more restaurants than you can easily count. Three other pho shops are visible from the front windows; there's teppanyaki around the corner, dim sum down the street. But Pho Bac is beloved despite—or maybe, partly, because of—its run-down charm, the crack smokers, and the guy I watched one afternoon holding his dick in broad daylight, pissing against the old bricks by the back door. That's kind of like taking a leak on the U.N. Building or the Washington Monument—something that ought to get you arrested, publicly humiliated, or punched in the face.I went inside anyway, and settled into a seat by the windows. I ordered pho sach, thick with slabs and curls of honeycomb tripe, because I was still fighting the lingering effects of a hangover. Short of patience or amphetamines, there is no better cure for one than menudo (the Mexican tripe soup, not the '80s boy band) or pho sach, laced with a healthy dose of sriracha and eaten as quickly as possible. The broth here changes as the day progresses—starting blonde and smooth at breakfast and growing darker, murkier, and more powerful. It's a Northern Vietnamese broth (hence the name: Pho Bac means "pho north"), rich and savory, without any sense of sweetness except that lent by a squeeze of lime.There was no noise while I ate but the clacking of chopsticks and the scrape of spoons. The radio was off, and the few tables were full of people fully involved with their soup. On the menu is a reminder that the kitchen now serves chicken (pho ga) and shrimp (pho tom). Neither version is terribly authentic; both are American conceits for a soup that already largely owes its existence to the waves of Chinese immigrants and French soldiers who flooded Vietnam in the 1940s and '50s. But most people here still order the classics: beef soup in a beef broth with a dozen spices and a nest of perfect noodles at the bottom.By the time I was done eating, the parking lot was again empty of all crack smokers and building pissers, and I was feeling a thousand times better. The early dinner rush was just starting to roll in from the bus stop and the surrounding neighborhood—bringing whatever strangeness and ungentrified reality it would—and I cleared out, ahead of the descending crowds, with a full belly, a happy heart, and a wallet barely dented by my indulgence. The back door was open to the afternoon heat and the crew was unloading supplies, getting ready for another rush in a history of rushes stretching back to a vanishing point more than 20 years distant. Making soup the way they always have, in the place it's done best.Price Check
Pho Bac 1314 S. Jackson S., 323-4387. 8 a.m.–9 p.m. daily.
Small bowl $6.50
Large bowl $7.50
Vietnamese coffee $firstname.lastname@example.org