During the height of the Vietnam War, Craig Claiborne, the pioneering New York Times restaurant critic, famously sampled the street food of Saigon, becoming enamored of the varied and intoxicating cuisine as artillery fire exploded nearby. In the brutally war-torn country, he was surprised to find “a deep-rooted respect for good food conscientiously prepared on almost every level.” Claiborne would go on to become one of Vietnamese food’s most ardent boosters, listing it among the top 10 cuisines of the world.
One of the “especially memorable” meals for Claiborne on that trip was an early-morning bowl of pho, a breakfast staple and the national dish of Vietnam. At its heart, pho (pronounced fuh) is a soup dish comprised of beef broth and thin rice noodles, topped with a variety of meats (usually cuts of beef, but chicken is also a common option), and served alongside a plate of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil, chili peppers, and culantro (yes, culantro). It’s as ubiquitous in Vietnam as fast food is in America.
In 1986, looking for a slice of Saigon closer to home, Claiborne embarked on a cross-country quest in search of authentic Vietnamese food in America. From New York, a city where “first-rate Vietnamese restaurants offering authentic Vietnamese food are comparatively hard to find,” as he wrote in the Times, to Los Angeles, where the food “lacked zest,” Claiborne was unimpressed. (He eventually fared better in San Francisco.) Notably absent from his trek: a visit to Madison Heights, whose strip malls have become synonymous with Vietnamese and South Asian culture in metro Detroit.
Elizabeth Hoang, whose parents fled South Vietnam as Saigon fell in 1975, cites the nail salon business as one reason why the Vietnamese came to metro Detroit. The markets and restaurants followed, she says. “We only used to have one Vietnamese restaurant here. I think Saigon Market was the first one. It used to have a restaurant inside the market. Then it turned into two.”
More restaurants and businesses began opening in earnest throughout the 1990s, Hoang says, which explains Claiborne’s omission of the Detroit suburb in his mid-’80s quest. Today, nearly 6 percent of Madison Heights’ population is of Asian descent — nothing close to the numbers you can find in Orange County, Calif., but a community with a visible presence nonetheless. For example, at the southwest corner of 13 Mile and Dequindre, you’ll find a grocery store, BBQ joint, bakery, pho restaurant, nail showroom, nail supply store, and nail salon — all with a Vietnamese or South Asian background.
“In this area, there’s a lot [of Vietnamese transplants],” Hoang says. “It’s scattered; everyone is not in one area. But Madison Heights somehow became the centralized area.”
Preserving Cultural Heritage
A medical assistant by day, Hoang is heavily involved with the local community. She’s a pop singer (stage name: Hoang Yen Ngoc) who performs with a band at weddings and community events, as well as with Vietnamese stars when they come to town. She also organizes, choreographs, and stars in cultural shows at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Warren, which offers services in Vietnamese, as well as Vietnamese-language classes.
And this month marks the biggest show of all, in celebration of Tet (pronounced thayt), the Vietnamese New Year (it lands on Feb. 10 this year). “They count that as one of the most important holidays in our culture,” Hoang says. “Everyone brings out their best dresses, best clothes. Preferably, you want to wear new clothes. Everything is basically new for the New Year.”
She expects to see months of organizing and planning come to fruition during a variety show at Our Lady of Grace, featuring a mix of traditional and contemporary Vietnamese song and dance, skits, and other performances. “I want to get the kids involved as much as I can so they keep the tradition,” Hoang says. “I do it once a year so at least they still have the tradition of Vietnamese music, and know what it is — keeping the culture alive.”
Like the Chinese New Year, Tet follows the lunar calendar, and each year is named after an animal (2013 is the Year of the Snake). “This is when you most likely get to see traditional dances and folklore music,” Hoang says. And while you won’t see public displays in the streets, signs of the community’s celebration — red-cellophane bouquets of candy, yellow cherry blossoms — can be seen in the grocery stores, restaurants, and other Vietnamese businesses that dot the stretches of John R and Dequindre between 11 and 13 Mile.
For outsiders, Tet is an intriguing time to discover this vibrant community, and there’s no better way than through its food. In the way that hummus and tabbouleh are often jumping-off points for intrepid diners looking for a taste of the Middle East, pho is a great place to start any culinary tour of Vietnam, and there are plenty of options in Madison Heights. “They’re pretty much all the same,” Hoang says of the half-dozen or so local spots that serve pho. “But people who are avid pho eaters know the difference. It’s just depending on the seasoning — how much of the herbs and spices you use. The key thing, they say, is keeping the broth clear. Some people can do it, some people can’t.”
Because it uses oil only sparingly, Vietnamese cuisine is lighter than the Chinese cooking traditions that heavily influenced it during 1,000 years of Chinese rule. It’s not as spicy as Thai food, and owes a thing or two to a century of French occupation. (The word pho, itself, is said to derive from the French beef stew pot-au-feu.)
“Pho came from the North [Vietnam],” Hoang says. “It’s French-influenced because the French came to the North first. When it came to the South, they added all the culantro and bean sprouts and stuff. Mom said that in the North it was just the broth itself and the meat and the noodles. None of the other things.”
Apart from the outside influences, Vietnamese food is known for its use of fish sauce (nuac mam), fresh herbs and vegetables, and inexpensive cuts of meat, combined for complex flavors. In metro Detroit, at an average of about $8 per hearty portion, pho hits all those marks. The flavor of the heady, fragrant broth is derived from long-simmered beef bones, charred ginger, and a spice cocktail of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel seed, and cardamom.
But part of pho’s appeal has to do with all the additional condiments. Along with fresh herbs, most pho restaurants offer hoisin sauce, hot chili paste, more fish sauce, and Sriracha. A table of four can all order pho, but that certainly doesn’t mean that each dish will taste the same.
“Anything goes with pho,” Hoang says. “There’s no certain way that you have to eat it. It’s your preference. There are some ethnic foods where you should eat it like this or like that. This, no. You can customize your own, and you won’t be yelled at.”
Just don’t slurp the broth from the bowl at the end of your meal, Hoang says. That would be a pho faux pas.
A half-dozen places to get your pho fill in Madison Heights:
Pho Tai 30577 Dequindre; 248-397-8333.Closed Monday. Thang Long 27641 John R; 248-547-6763 Closed Monday. Little Saigon 29083 Dequindre; 248-336-9185. Closed Monday.