Bowl of Sighs

We try to control ourselves, but we just can't stop ordering Sai's pho ga

Disturbingly, I find myself relating more and more to Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective on the TV show of the same name. Whenever he enters a room, Monk invariably feels compelled to touch a lamp. He tries to control himself -- he thinks he can touch it just once, but after the first tap, his OCD brain kicks in and he finds himself unable to stop. Again. Again. Again.

It's the same way with me and Sai's (505 Washington, 362-3689) pho ga. On many a weekday afternoon, I've found myself waiting patiently in line with the other salivating downtown lunchies, my heart full of good intentions. I scan the menu, glance over at what other people are eating, concentrate on recalling other dishes that I've relished here -- the yummy Five Spice Chicken, the redolent, rich curry lamb and noodle soup -- and then spy the pho ga and have to order it. Again. Again. Again.

The upside to my obsession is that in addition to giving me the kind of deep, happy belly satisfaction one can only get from, well, a big bowl of soup, I think this pho ga might also be a cure for cancer. (OK, so I have no medical evidence to substantiate this claim, but I can personally vouch for its curative powers in the face of a cold, the Hong Kong flu, and a really sucky day at work.)

It's hard to pinpoint what makes Sai's pho ga different from other bowls of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup I've had. A staple at breakfast and lunch, pho ga is not as ingrained in the native culinary vernacular as pho bo (beef noodle soup), so the variations aren't as numerous, the points of comparison fewer. And it's not a soup with a lot of bells and whistles to begin with -- no bottom notes of anchovy or whatnot to give it that mystery oomph.

If anything, what sets Sai's pho ga apart, what makes it so addicting, is its clean flavors and subtle underpinnings, beginning with a base broth made with chicken and pig bones, charred onions, and ginger. After a good, long simmer, hand-shredded chicken-breast meat and fresh rice noodles are added, followed by a flotilla of red onions, scallions, jalapeños, and cilantro. It's served with a side plate of Meyer lemon wedges, bean sprouts, and fresh basil (I'm a fanatic for extra lemon and a healthy shot of chili sauce).

Sai's proprietor Nancy Tsan, who with her husband James has owned the place for 17 years, smiles when asked about any secret ingredients, then shakes her head (a little too vaguely, notes my inner conspiracy theorist). The pair emigrated from Vietnam in 1979 after being wed in a marriage arranged by their parents. Their son, Stan, helps run the place now, and has -- at long last -- extended the restaurant's hours into dinnertime.

Stan says that I am not alone in my compulsion. He serves many regulars (of which there are at least a daily dozen) without ever brandishing a menu.

I decide that predictable is one thing, but boring is quite another, and go back to Sai's the following week determined to order something else. I take my time and study the menu, carefully weighing all the options. Chicken sautéed with three kinds of mushrooms? Sautéed prawns in lemongrass and onion? Over my right shoulder a steaming bowl of crabmeat swimming in a savory corn chowder whisks past.

The waiter approaches with a smile. "So, what you like?"

I open my mouth and pause. Beads of sweat form on my brow. And then, inevitably, I touch the lamp. Next time ... I swear.

 
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