The critics were right.
It’d seem eccentric that one of my Paris “to-do” lists is to have Vietnamese food, but the concept of it all isn’t completely off-base. I can’t quite recall where it stemmed from, but I’m pretty sure I remember watching several travel documentaries – it could’ve been one of those Anthony Bourdain ones – that inspired the idea that the best Vietnamese food to be had outside of the nation was in Paris. It appeared to make perfect sense, at least in the way of my reasoning – Vietnam was once under French rule, and despite the harshness of its jurisdiction, there was no doubt a epicurean conversation between these two very different cultures, with pho being a major part of it all. So, that was that.
As the days go by, and seeing first-hand how small Paris actually was, I gradually became more daring in my travels – as long as it was served by the Paris Metro, it was close enough. In my searches, there were, rather expectedly, more than enough spots to satisfy my cravings, but the place I decided to go to was selected based on a more mundane reason: Paris Metro Line 14. The line, which opened in 1998, was considered revolutionary because it deviated from the homogeneity of the older network. Instead of the average inter-station distance of 400 metres, the stops were spaced out which decreased connectivity but provided quicker cross-city access. The line predates Singapore’s North East Line as the world’s first completely automated metro line. The floors are tiled instead of being bitumenised, and also have platform edge doors. Within minutes, I’m transported from Chatelet, the centre of Paris to the outer periphery of the city limits to Olympiades station along Rue de Tolbiac. When I surfaced, I could barely recognize the city. The uniformity of Haussman architecture had given into generic and functional high-rises. No wonder Parisians were up in arms against skyscrapers – it was either generic apartment towers or the avant-garde forms of La Defense.
It’s a 400 metre walk west along Rue de Tolbiac from Olympiades. Sounds easy, but the depth of the platform and the countless escalator landings you’ve to conquer disorients you by the time you reach ground level. Once on the ground, there are no street maps or anything. If you can’t find your bearings with the daylight, then walk towards the direction of the skyscrapers, and then some… until you reach the junction of Avenue de Choisy. The adjacent row of Vietnamese pho restaurants are hard to miss, especially in twilight.
Don’t be mistaken by the picture. Each spring roll is the size of a Singaporean popiah.
The weather’s still too cold, so the “al fresco” areas have their canvas canopy fully extended, and the “walls” are really just temporary hung up canvas and plastic sheets. It recalled those shelters that those street side stalls in Seoul have for diners when it’s winter. Inside the actual restaurant is an all functional set-up – the area is bustling with people of all color (all naturalized French, of course), and the atmosphere not unlike a “cha chan teng” one might find in Hong Kong. The waiters, all male, all Vietnamese, some pretty attractive in their appearance (but I shrug that off – Singapore males are typically not good looking, and compensate looks to become roided up studs). The menu’s pretty simple in its execution – just pho and noodles. I spot the familiar noodle dish that my ex-colleague and Editor, Jeremy always orders whenever the team goes to Joo Chiat Road for Vietnamese. Nevertheless, I order what almost everybody’s having: the beef special. I can’t come to a Vietnamese restaurant without trying their spring rolls, so I ordered that, too.
“Oh shit”, was the very first thought when my food was served. It wasn’t a bowl – it was more like a bucket of beef pho. And on the sidelines, the quintessential condiments of beansprouts, mint, basil and other vegetables served in a plate size that back home in Singapore might be used to serve a large sea bass. The spring rolls were also served on a similarly sized plate, with each one bigger and thicker than many of the popiahs (Singapore-style spring rolls) I’ve had in Asia. Well, you’ve to start somewhere, and with a tray with bottles of sauces and chili at my will, I start. Superlatives aside, it was good. With every spoon full of soup, with every slurp of noodles, and with every crunch into the roll, was just another step into felicity. However, the magnitude of the portion does catch up, and while I managed to down the pho, the vegetables, particularly the beansprouts, were a bottomless pit. But despite my best attempts, after managing to wipe out two-thirds of the portion, I had to eventually concede in favor of beginning on the appetizing and delectable spring rolls. As I finished, I noticed that the staff did accept the takeaway of leftovers, which I should’ve done, but then again, throwing rubbish back at the apartment in Paris is not as easy as putting it into the dustbin. Besides, I wanted to go to Champs-Elysees to ascend the Arc du Triomphe after this.