by David Cecelski
When I opened the Pakse Café’s door, I felt like I was walking into another world. Named for a city in Laos, the little café has 7 or 8 tables and a specials board written in Lao. Everybody there was speaking Lao, too. At one of the tables, a group of older men was sipping cups of thick black coffee and telling stories and laughing a lot. They looked like old friends.
The shop serves Vietnamese and Laotian sandwiches and the house specialty is banh mi, sort of a Vietnamese version of French country sandwiches. The proprietor’s daughter made mine with tender roast pork, cilantro, crisp cucumber, thinly-sliced pickled carrots and daikon, chili peppers, and a spicy butter, or pate, served on a toasted baguette. It was breathtakingly good.
I found the little Laotian sandwich shop when I was inGreensboro last week. It’s in an old strip mall on West Florida Street, south of UNC-Greensboro (where I was giving a lecture that afternoon) in the city’s Glenwood neighborhood. The strip mall were a microcosm of the new Greensboro: an old African-American grocery, a Latino Pentecostal storefront church, and several other Laotian and Vietnamese businesses, including the Saigon Market, a computer repair store, and Tien Pihong Bi-da, a pool hall.
One of my favorite things to do in Greensboro now is explore Southeast Asian restaurants like the Pakse Cafe. Thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees have madeGreensboro their home since the end of the Vietnam War. For some of them, like the Montagnards, who are tribal people from the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the city has a special importance.Guilford County, where Greensboro is, now has the largest Montagnard community in the world outside of Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, Greensboro has also become a great place for Southeast Asian food. For a relatively small city, you can find a wealth of Southeast Asian eateries. The choices range from little sandwich shops like the Pakse Café to nice sit-down restaurants like Pho Hien Voung on Spring Garden Street. Markets abound, too—there’s everything from the Dong Huong fish market, also on Spring Garden Street, to Y’Nen Nie’s new American Oriental Market, an Asian supermarket on Summit Avenue.
My favorite dish at Greensboro’s Southeast Asian cafes so far is the pho tai at a Vietnamese restaurant called Van Loi. I found Van Loi on the side of a strip mall on High Point Road, in a neighborhood with probably ten other Vietnamese or Laotian restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops. I remember, the first time I was there, I sat by the front window, next to a warming bin full of roast ducks and quail.
I ordered the pho tai, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup. My waitress brought me the hot bowl of soup first and let me inhale the rich, aromatic beef broth for a few seconds. I couldn’t tell all the ingredients that went into the broth, but traditional Vietnamese cooks typically flavor their pho broth with beef, charred onions, and spices like star anise, cinnamon, black cardamom, and roasted ginger.
My waitress soon brought a lovely plate of limes, mung beans, greens, chili peppers, and sprigs of fresh basil for me to add to the broth as I wished. The soup was lovely, the flavors entrancing. It was beyond good: it was one of the best meals of my life. I had eaten pho a few times before, but nothing memorable, nothing remotely as sublime as this.