Cafe Car: Pool Is Not for Pickups at Billiard Hoang

Photos by Matthew Piel
A weekly column in which we ride the light rail to random stops, hop off, and wander around until something strikes our culinary fancy, treating the train like our own personal café car.

The Stop: Columbia City

The Vibe: A neighborhood in transition. Columbia City has long been touted (or in some cases derided) as a place where gentrification works. The stop is a few blocks away, but the clash of new and old is all around. Between blocks with recently opened apartment or condo buildings sits the sketchiest mattress store I have ever seen; its wares spilling out of a side door.

It's not a stop where dining options are readily available and my café car companion and I are planning for a longer walk to the restaurants and bars that line Rainier Avenue through Columbia City's downtown. But then, one block south of the station, we see a sign blinking "O-P-E-N."

The Café: Billiard Hoang, 3220 S. Hudson, 723-2054. If your only pool hall experience has been at Jillian's, ogling cleavage as women lean over the tables to take occasional shots between long gulps of margaritas, you will be sorely disappointed. Billiard Hoang is for serious players only.

As we walk in, a man is carefully stretching green fabric over one of the eight tables. An hour later, he's still in the process of meticulously repairing the table. While many a bar lets the tables lose their perfectly balanced surface, their primary purpose being the aforementioned ogling, that is clearly unacceptable at Billiard Hoang.

The "bar" exists mostly in name only. There is a counter, yes, with stools. But behind it is only a refrigerator with Corona, Heineken, sodas and juices. A menu on the counter is written entirely in Vietnamese.

"We got ABCD, like American, too," the man behind the counter tells me.

"What's good?" I reply.

"There's rice noodle sandwiches," he says. "Barbecue or chicken."

He runs my credit card for two Coronas, two barbecued pork banh mi sandwiches, and a half-hour of pool. The total comes to $16, a price you definitely can't get at Jillians. We take our food and drinks to a table in the corner and rack up.

As expected the table is almost perfectly true. The ball goes exactly where you hit it, which removes one of my favorite excuses for sucking at pool.

The banh mi is also true, so thickly piled with spicy, tender pork, just one is enough to make a meal.

The Corona helps take the sting out of knowing a dozen or so near-expert players are watching me make an ass of myself trying to sink a straight cross-table shot. Over and over the ball bounces off the side of the pocket.

As we leave, I notice pool cues locked into little racks on the walls.

Billiard Hoang is a place where everyone is a shark, and if you're not, you probably don't want to take them on. But you can take solace in munching on delectable banh mi and watching the guy carefully repairing the table singing along whenever a Vietnamese pop song makes it into the rotation on the bar's sound system.

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