The lettering on the awning was strange, cute and bubbly, making me suspicious. Every other Vietnamese restaurant I’d ever seen has signage that either suggests a certain grace or is exceedingly matter-of-fact. But there it was, Noodle Pho, promising the bowls of noodles in broth that are something like the national dish.
My suspicions were heightened when I sat down under a painting of Jesus with a Korean prayer printed alongside. And there, on the menu, was a section devoted to ramyun, the Korean equivalent of ramen.
Given the evidence against the Vietnamese provenance of this food, I decided to go against the pho, but opted, as I tend to do, for the weirdest thing on the menu: cheese ramyun.
The shop owner, small and earnest-looking in a pink house apron, gave me a look as if surprised, and I commenced waiting. And waiting. I watched a handful of customers come in, order pho, and get to the business of eating. I waited.
At some point, the owner flashed me a pleading smile. A man came out of the kitchen, put a coat on over his apron, and left the restaurant. I wasn’t convinced there were other cooks working. The owner brought me more tea and another wan smile.
The cook came back with a paper bag in his hand, the cold air radiating off him. Five minutes later, the owner brought back her smile and a disturbingly hot plastic plate piled with squiggly instant noodles and two hot and disturbingly unmelted squares of pasteurized process cheese food product. A cup of raw tomato chili sauce rode shotgun.
That sauce was the dish’s saving grace, since cheese that doesn’t react to heat isn’t often worth eating. I lifted the orange squares and ate the noodles out from under them when the owner came to me. “Is it… ok?” she asked, her eyes shimmering with worry.
“Oh, yes,” I said, suddenly wanting to protect her feelings. “I like it.” She looked relieved, and started to turn away when she looked again at my plate and then blurted, “I’m sorry I did not give you the good cheese! We ran out.” She looked disappointedly at the stiff squares. “I want to give you… mozzarella cheese.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s fine. I really like the sauce.” She looked sheepish, and I felt a need to break the silence. “Are you Korean?”
She answered quickly, “Yes. How do you know?” She sat down, smiling.
I pointed to the prayer on the wall. I pointed to the ramyun. “So why did you open a Vietnamese restaurant?”
She lost her job in Korea, working in a factory. Disheartened by her prospects and concerned about her kids, she made her way to the U.S., finding work eventually as a server in a Vietnamese restaurant. She saved her money, hoping to open a business of her own, and eventually took a good look at the kitchen at her job and thought, “That’s not so hard.” Korean food, she thought, would be hard to do. But make a big pot of soup? Who can’t do that? So she watched the cooks make their pho broth and divined an unremarkable recipe, borrowed money from family, found a storefront just far enough off a main drag to ensure too little foot traffic, and poured herself into a faulty dream. She’s here all the time. She doesn’t see her daughter enough, but hopes to make enough money to send her to college. She’s been open three months, and she’s running out of money.
“I’m scared,” she said to me, a total stranger. “I’m afraid I made a big mistake.” My heart was breaking for this woman. She looked back down at my plate. “I really want to give you the good cheese! Promise you come back. Next time I give you the good cheese.”
I promised. I never did. She closed a few months later.