Feeling Grand on Grand Street at Pho Grand

Pho Grand

I finally did it.

I’ve lived in Park Slope for 10 months now and every time I take the D train into the city I promise myself that one day, when it stops on Grand Street, I will get out and eat lunch. You’d thing that a food obsessed person like me would’ve done that all the time: Grand Street runs right through Chinatown and most of my favorite food personages–especially Calvin Trillin–feel about Chinatown the way that Joan Rivers feels about plastic surgery. It’s what makes life livable.

Wandering Chinatown, though, frightens me. I like to go with a destination, a fully memorized menu. I like to know what I’m going to get. And I suppose the reason that I’ve often avoided getting out at Grand Street is that I wouldn’t know which direction to head, which places are good, which ones will be soon closed by the Department of Health (as was the dim sum parlor I went to with Lisa and John two years ago).

Yet, last Thursday, I was feeling brave. And hungry. So I got off the train, I marched upstairs and headed down Grand Street eager to make a discovery.

And then there it was. The sign you see above. Pho Grand. There were blurbs outside–an article from The New York Times (by Amanda Hesser) and The Village Voice (by Robert Sietsema). These are authorities I admire. Sietsema’s said (I’m pretty sure it said this): “The best Vietnamese food in New York.”

I was sold. So I entered and got a perfect table in the window. I studied the menu eagerly and when the waiter approached and asked what I wanted to drink, I chose a daring drink from the drink menu: Pickled lemonade. Pickled lemonade!

“It’s salty,” warned the waiter.

“That’s ok,” I said. He walked away and then returned with this:

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It doesn’t look like much, does it? But at the bottom of the clear looking liquid was a warped looking lemon. I took a sip and it’s just one of those flavors that’s impossible to describe. To say it tasted like salty lemon wouldn’t do it justice. They key is in the fermentation: think of wine. If someone said, “Do you want to drink rotten grape juice?” you’d look at them like they were crazy. But all the complexity you get from festering grapes is true of the complexity you get from a fermenting lemon. This “pickled lemonade” is the most profoundly complex lemonade you will ever have.

As for the menu, I decided to get the sesame beef. It was recommended in one of the blurbs and it was just what I was craving. When I imagined it in my head, I pictured a glossy, glittery mass of beef like you get at Chinese take-out. I had no idea that what would come out would be as arful and glorious as the most refined dish uptown:

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How to describe this? Well I think the picture really does do it justice. It’s as if you took the most flavorful beef and then rolled it somehow into sausages (was it ground first?), coated it in a subtly sweet sauce and cooked until golden and brilliantly caramelized. The meat rests on a nest of super thin rice noodles and is topped with a beautiful nut and cilantro garnish. It’s served with lettuce leafs for wrapping, pickled vegetables (carrots and ramps!), and two sauces for dipping:

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This meal was so fantastic that I’m beating myself up for not discovering Grand Street sooner. Why did I ride past the Xanadu of foodiedom every day for a year without stopping off and stuffing myself silly? Well lucky for me I have until October 1st before my lease is up. I plan to live a grand life on Grand street for the next two months: where should I head to next?

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