Eating History at Pho Bac

"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 out 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 Jager-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, too skeevy or weird. They start thinking that neighborhood or crowd or exterior equates somehow to cleanliness or talent in the kitchen, when, in actuality, it's often the reverse that's true.

Oftentimes, 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 the burnt-plastic stink of it 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 again, the two of them 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..."

From this week's review of Pho Bac

Pho Bac has been around for a long time. The original has operated for decades in its odd little bunker at the intersection of Jackson, Boren and Rainier, serving a menu that is fundamentally unchanged since its first day of business: beef noodle soup, small or large, bulked up with different bits of cow, and nothing more.

For a lot of people in Seattle, Pho Bac was their first experience with Vietnamese pho. Almost everyone I talked to about the place remembered it fondly and said, with the same wistful tone in their voice, "Oh, yeah... Man, I used to eat there all the time in the 80's." It remains the favorite pho shop for certain historically-minded (or extraordinarily loyal) Seattleites who will swear up and down that even now, with dozens of pho shops to choose from, running in neighborhoods all over the area, Pho Bac is still the best.

And I wouldn't necessarily argue with any of them.

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