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Breakfasting eastern-style

by Amy Kingsley

I missed my chance to eat an authentic Southeast Asian breakfast in college.

There was a place – a noodle house I patronized regularly for lunch and dinner – that opened at 7 a.m. and sat behind the 7-11 across from the University of Texas. The restaurant operated out of the first floor of a two-story building with a skirt of yellow awnings. In the plain rooms above lived a handful of Asian students, many of whom bought meal cards and took their three squares there.

I passed it on my way to school but never went in. Asian food might be fine for lunch and dinner, but breakfast back then was a resolutely western affair, dominated by tater tots and tacos.

So last week I made up for lost time, taking my boyfriend and myself to Sunday brunch at a Vietnamese joint in an old, converted drive-thru. Inside, Pho Vietnam was all cream and primary colors, with glass-topped tables and tasseled curtains.

The restaurant felt like a diner. We ordered Vietnamese coffees, strong brew loaded with sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice.

Then we tackled the menu. Pho Vietnam opens early and offers a few breakfast items. Almost all are Banh Mi, Vietnamese roast pork sandwiches with jalapenos, carrots, cilantro and paté. We ordered one, because they are thoroughly delicious and relatively hard to come by in Greensboro.

We bickered over the second dish. Pho Vietnam has an extensive menu – a glossy gatefold survey of traditional dishes like broken rice, pho, lotus stem salad and broad noodles. Vegetarians beware, there’s swine in almost everything: pork balls, roast pork, shredded pork, pork jowls. In keeping with our brunchy intent, we ordered the house special crepes, another holdover, we guessed, from French colonialism in Indochina.

Our server, a thin teenager with rhinestone dollar-sign earrings, took our order and when it arrived, coached us through its consumption. The crepes come with a side of green leaf lettuce, fish sauce and a ramekin of pulverized chilis. You can eat it out of a bowl, or you can consume it the Vietnamese way by wrapping the crepes in lettuce and dipping it in the fish sauce. Fire it up with chili paste at your own risk.

I like a meal with a little assembly required. It prevents scarfing and turns the whole passive experience of eating out into something of a project. Between bites Mark and I talked about The Tipping Point, our assigned reading for book club (verdict: meh).

We passed the roast pork sandwich between us. It came with a thin brown dipping sauce, like Vietnamese au jus. The sandwich arrived in a red plastic basket, a crusty oblong roll bursting with carrots and mung bean sprouts. The pork tucked inside was redolent of anise and cooked to a toothsome pink.

The scallion-studded crepes were stuffed with bean sprouts, tiny pink shrimp and hunks of gelatinous pork – probably from the jowl. Two of them arrived at our booth on an oval plate.

We shared the plates and sucked down coffee when we slathered our crepes with too much chili paste. The whole shebang, drinks included, cost less than brunch for two anywhere else in Greensboro.

Pho Vietnam opens too late to make it part of a weekday routine. I’m usually at work by 10 a.m., their opening hour.

But for a weekend excursion, it’s got a lot to recommend it. The coffee is heavy, but the food is light. There are a lot of dishes we didn’t get to try, and so we’ll probably be back, if only for the fried bananas both of us eyed before taking the check.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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