Van Loi Vietnamese is real deal

by Brian Clarey

I’m sitting here eating noodles, and it’s all because of hot dogs.

I’m in this Vietnamese joint on High Point Road, and I’ve got a bowl – no, make that a bucket – of noodles and broth in front of me, with all the trimmings, and I’m straight-up jammin’ on it, slurping it down like I’m getting paid for it (which, in a sense, I am), and there’s little dark spots on my notebook and shirt because the long, thin noodles splatter when I suck them down. The soup is hot, in both flavor and temperature; my nose is starting to leak and my forehead breaks out in beads.

And it’s because of hot dogs. More specifically, Takero Kobayashi, the Japanese competitive eater who this year at Coney Island’s famous July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest came from behind to tie reigning champion Joey Chestnut after 10 minutes of regulation gorging at 59 hot dogs each. It was truly disgusting.

Kobayashi lost a sudden-death bite-off, but it got me thinking about the man, his peculiar talents and the nature of his celebrity.

I remembered little facts about him, how he blasted the world record at Coney Island in 2001 and held the title until 2007, and how he got his start in noodle-eating competitions in his native land. I remembered that he once ate 21 pounds of noodles in 15 minutes.

Naturally, this made me hungry. Hungry for noodles.

And now here I am, thinking of that great glutton himself as I mack down this pot of pho chin nam bo vien. It’s basically beef stock and a large portion of rice noodles, to which I’ve added Vietnamese meatballs, brisket and flank. With the steaming bowl comes a plate of fresh greens: basil and cilantro, with fresh jalapeño, bean sprouts and lime. The broth holds large chunks of scallion and finely-sliced onion, and I’ve taken the liberty of adding a bit of chili paste that is the color of red death.

Several sauces sit there on the table’s lazy Susan, including hoisin (sweet and smoky), soy sauce (salty), that stuff with the rooster on the bottle (fire hot), peppery vinegar (no thanks) and a quietly fermenting jar of diced onions and whole peppers in vinegar (an acquired taste).

The Van Loi meatballs are rubbery, as tradition dictates, and flavorful, and the slices of brisket, generally dropped in raw, have soaked up juice like they’ve been marinating in it all night. But I like the fatty flank pieces, which nearly dissolve in the blistering broth.

I hack away at it with chopsticks and a spoon; I pick up the bowl and sip from it; I’m like Kobayashi for just a few minutes, even as I feel the salubrious benefits of the meal take hold.

I catch my breath with a cup of cold, strong Vietnamese coffee, sweet with condensed milk. Man, I could drink five of those.

I take note of my surroundings: a neat little storefront set off the road, with a tidy dining room. Off to the side is a large take-out counter with all manner of Chinese barbecue crisping under heat lamps and ready to go. They have plenty of noodle dishes, of course, and fairly standard southeast Asian cuisine, including banh mi, those great little baguette sandwiches that were a gift to the cuisine from the French.

Banh mi feature a mash-up of pickled and sliced vegetables, whole-leaf herbs, meat and – if you get a good one – paté.

It’s a great little lunch, and then I start to wonder…. The raw vegetables, unprocessed meat and hearty bread present a masticatory challenge, and I don’t think Kobayashi could eat more than five of them in 10 minutes. Maybe six.

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