I got to know Japanese food intimately at Yoko, a long, thin strip of a restaurant lined with pleather-covered booths, smoked mirrors, and a sushi bar backed by oversized photos of bamboo. The place, always filled with regulars, was situated between Babies R Us and the Spy Store off Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach. It had a weirdly grand automatic door that slid open as you approached, like the entrance to Ali Baba's cave. Yoko's menu wasn't terribly exotic, although it did serve burdock root and bowls of vinegared rice topped with raw fish. I liked the place because the owner, Yoko, was an elegant throwback, as genteel as a princess in her silk kimonos, pale makeup smoothed over softly wrinkled cheeks. Yoko performed karaoke on Friday nights, singing Japanese pop tunes. Her frail, elderly husband hovered over his sushi boats behind the bar, quick and shy as a shadow.
Yoko died not long ago, and the restaurant closed. But we sat in our old booth and remembered her last week, because the place had reopened recently, serving sushi and Japanese dishes along with a menu of Vietnamese specialties just in time for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Tet starts on February 7 this year, ushering in the Year of the Rat. It's an excuse for foodies of all nations to come together and consume vast quantities of soups, noodles, banh mi (a pork and herb-filled sub), lacy shrimp- and bean sprout-stuffed crepes, and salted, stir-fried shrimp, for starters.
We ordered a bottle of sake and talked about how Yoko probably never knew so many people would miss her — not just her restaurant but her politesse, her gentility. We didn't know her well — we didn't know her at all, really — but I still think she'd be pleased at what the new, Vietnamese owners have done with the place. They've renamed the restaurant Sakyo but kept the long sushi bar and the bamboo photos. They've painted the walls a placid blue-green and outfitted the tables in red linen covers and with sturdy chairs. Saturday night, the place was busy with Vietnamese families, little girls in party dresses, spiffy teens in ponytails and pumps, couples on dates, single men, and a tall Caucasian man with his mixed-race nieces and nephews. It looked like most everybody was eating pho, delivered in steaming bowls by a pretty 20-something woman, a soft-spoken lady of middle age, and the plump male cook.
Pho, the unofficial national dish of Vietnam, is one of the most satisfying meals ever devised. Pronounced "fuh," as in the French feu in pot au feu (from which it may be derived), it's a beef or chicken noodle soup. Entire academic conferences have been devoted to the origins of this steamy soul food, which is now sold on every corner in Hanoi. The apparent consensus is that it had something to do with the French colonists who came to Vietnam to export rubber in the 20th Century. Les françaises relished their boeuf, an animal Vietnamese farmers had long preferred to keep mobile as a plow or cart engine. A pho's broth is dark, piquant, and sweet — not from the beef, which is added just before serving, but because it begins with charred ginger and onions. Pho has the clarity and depth of a fresh spring-fed pond. You can order it at Sakyo in any combination of rare eye-round steak, added raw at the last minute so it's perfectly cooked when it arrives; well-done brisket; dense, chewy little pork meatballs; slippery ribbons of tendon; and chicken, priced from $7.50 to $8.95. Then you doctor your soup to the pitch of your palate, drawing from the platter of herbs — a heap of fresh basil for notes of licorice and lavender, bean sprouts for texture, sliced jalapeños for heat, and a narrow, spiny leaf called ngo gai (thorny cilantro) for its clean, soapy undertones. Tall or squat bottles and jars are on the table: salty fish sauce, three kinds of pepper sauce (one smooth, like Tabasco, one chunky and very hot, one sour), and hoisin for an extra dose of deeply aged and fruity sugars.
I've been told that old-fashioned purists want nothing to do with this mix-'n'-matched bastard, a corruption of the soup North Vietnamese cooks took pride in seasoning beautifully before it got to the table. I'm snob enough to sympathize. But I recognize the vox populi when I hear it, and if ever there were a people's food, pho is it. You can have it your way — on the street, around a family dinner table, in some little noodle dive you tumble into after a night of heavy drinking, or in bed with a cold, straight from the takeout container, when it tastes best of all. I can testify that nothing soothes a sore throat like this floral broth or clears a stuffed nose as well as a couple of spoonfuls of pepper sauce liberally stirred into it. It stimulates a flagging appetite and returns a sparkle to an eye dulled with fever. Pho is brilliant medicine and an aphrodisiac when you're feeling fine. Like the witches around their brew in Macbeth, you can throw anything into it and it'll still taste fabulous and work its magic.
Sakyo has many other Vietnamese dishes to recommend it beyond pho. There's the crepe stuffed with bean sprouts, cilantro, and shrimp, banh xeò, for $7.95, frilly and brown around the edges. Sùòn sakyo, deep fried ribs, have a lovely crust, like the thinnest, salty caramel shell over luscious baby-back meat; they're $6.25. Pint-sized Vietnamese fried egg rolls, chä giò, crumble into flakes of buttery deliciousness when you bite into them; they're stuffed with strips of hot ground pork and shredded carrot. Spring rolls encase cold ingredients — herbs and sprouts, pork, shrimp, rice noodles — in pleasantly rubbery rice paper wrapping and come with a sweet, brown hoisin dipping sauce. Each is $2.95.
Apart from the pho, my favorite entrées included a plate of large shrimp sautéed in their shells, tôm rang muôi, for $14.95. The chef prepares these with a special blend of coarse salts that make the shrimp shells airy and brittle; you eat them whole without peeling, and they retain juice and flavor. Bò hoäc heo xäo sä ot, chicken lemongrass dinner, $9.95, was paired with chicken meat, sliced thin and cooked until it took on a frilly profile, with lemongrass, jalapeños, chili peppers, white onions, and scallions sautéed in chili sauce and served with rice. Bun thit nuóng cha giò bi ($8.75) tossed bits of fried pork, shredded pork skin, and sliced fried egg rolls, plus the super-slender, transparent vermicelli called rice stick, in a sweet-and-sour fish sauce with hot peppers for $8.75.
I wasn't as bowled over by a combination dish of pork, crab, shrimp, and noodles served with a cup of broth on the side (hù tiêu, $7.75); you can eat it dry or pour on the broth and have it damp, though there's not enough liquid to make it truly soup-like. It was tepid in temperature, and imitation crab is a culturally acquired enthusiasm. The thin and curly egg noodles, though, reminiscent of ramen, had a mysterious flavor, like the deepest recesses of a Chinese grocery store. I had some reservations too about a beef stew with rice noodles, phò bò kho: heartier than the pho, with big chunks of stewed brisket and slightly mushy carrots, the stew tasted like what a mom anywhere might whip up in the crock pot on nights when dinner's an afterthought. But I'm looking forward to trying whole grilled fish sweet and sour, snapper in caramelized sauce, and sweet-and-sour pork ribs with pineapple, celery, and cucumber.
I have yet to try the sushi and Japanese menu, but it's extensive. Fried soft-shell crab, yellowtail jaw, and fried tuna with eel sauce appear as appetizers. For entrées, there's a whole bunch of tempuras, which are advertised as their specialty, as well as katsu and teriyaki with stir-fried lobster and scallops, among other yummies. Sakyo offers lots of specialty rolls, including hand rolls, as well as the chirashi, tekka don, and unagi don I used to love when Yoko was running the place: plain raw fish over vinegar rice, a supper as understated and elegant as the lady herself. But for this month, anyway, I'll be celebrating Tet with my own tête poised over a bowl of beef noodles.