Osso Buco

Around here, we used to do a fairly regular feature called Food Poetry Wednesday. It isn’t the catchiest name ever, but it was straightforward. Since taking my new job, I’ve had shamefully little time to concentrate on anything else but keeping my head above water. Today, however, found me laid up in the house most of the day with a terrible allergy attack. After a morning of watching World’s Most Shocking Police Videos (or some other such crap) in a histamine-induced daze, I turned off the TV and went back to bed with some books.

One of them was Billy Collins’ Sailing Alone Around the Room, a gift from an old friend upon landing my first job out of college. Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, but before that he was writing the kind of poetry that has always touched me: poems that elevate the ordinary to something sacred, special or simply humorous. He takes the most routine situations — or even thoughts — and puts them into verses that either make you take everything a little less seriously or make you appreciate the small things just that much more, depending upon the mood in which you’ve found yourself.

So in honor of a not-so-special Sunday evening in which I’ve found myself in a fairly rotten mood, here’s a food poem by Billy Collins that gave me comfort in spite of myself. Hope it does the same for you, too.

Osso Bucco

I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed done
with cold, exhilarating wine.

I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach —
something you don’t hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.

But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife’s laughter
on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso bucco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief’s favorite son.

Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rock hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.

But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaak Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.

In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other one will follow.
Then we will slip below the surface of the night
into miles of water, drifting down and down
to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock,
beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure,
into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know.

Have You Been to Pho Binh?

Pho with brisket and crispy fat at Pho Binh

If you’re a Houston Chowhound or a resident of South Houston, the answer might be a resounding “YES!” But if you aren’t in one of these groups, you’re probably missing out on the best pho in Houston.

The best pho in Houston. That’s a minefield of a statement. After all, Houston’s thriving Vietnamese community means that there are at least 70 pho restaurants in town — and probably far more than the ones I could count in the phone book — which would seem to make choosing a favorite a difficult task. But it’s only difficult if you’ve never eaten at Pho Binh. In the face of its highly fragrant broth with a silky sheen of beef fat floating on top, all other pho becomes a distant and slightly disappointing memory. This is truly how pho should taste.

Jalapenos, limes and bean sprouts for the pho
Jalapenos, limes and bean sprouts for the pho

I’m not the first to write a love letter (or love video, even) to Pho Binh and I certainly won’t be the last. And I certainly can’t claim to have discovered the place. Pho Binh has been a staple of the South Houston dining scene for at least 20 years, according to my friend and area resident David Tong. He seemed shocked to hear that Houston foodies have discovered the little place — a ramshackle pairing of a single-wide trailer and a tumbledown house — and are currently singing its praises far and wide. He half-jokingly told me that people who find the place have a duty as secret-keepers to make sure it doesn’t become too popular. After all, they run out of pho every day as it is.

I had the pleasure of eating breakfast there last weekend with a collection of some of my favorite food lovers: Misha, Dorothy and David. David, who owns Tuscany Coffee, bragged of eating at Pho Binh at least five times a week when he was working in South Houston and therefore was our guide for the meal. He advised us to get the bo vien (meatballs) and extra fat with our pho. I went with both of those options as well as brisket and crispy fat for my soup. I thought of my former boss, Trang, and how she and her family would eat pho every morning for breakfast (pho is a traditional Vietnamese breakfast, lunch or dinner item — versatile!). If every morning started over a rich, invigorating, slightly spicy bowl of noodle soup with thick cuts of brisket and fat, I feel I’d be at least half as productive as she was. Or not. She had that whole half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese, crazy hardcore Asian work ethic going for her. And…I don’t.

A pho-ntastic meal
A pho-ntastic meal

The folks who run Pho Binh had just returned from their annual two month trip back to Vietnam. During that time each year, the restaurant is closed. As in, tough luck, go eat somewhere else, we have lives to live closed. I love that attitude, and wish it extended to American culture as well. As a result, the place was utterly packed with happy customers, joyful for the return of their beloved pho. We scored a rickety couple of tables in the single-wide portion of the restaurant, which is technically the storeroom/back half of the kitchen.

As I slurped my noodles and savored each drop of broth, surrounded by boxes of paper napkins and flats of aluminum cans, I thought how odd it was that one of the best meals of my life was being enjoyed in a poorly-lit trailer off Fuqua and I-45. But isn’t that all that we hope for in Houston? And isn’t that what we love about this city?