CHEAP EATS Earl Butter had just called out for Chinese food when I called him to see if he wanted to go out for Chinese food, or any kind of food, for that matter. I didn’t have anything in particular in mind. Just food and seeing Earl, because it had been a week. And you start to miss a guy like Earl. I do.
"I just ordered Chinese," he said. "It’ll be here any minute."
"Delivery?" I said. "Why would you do that?"
He said he gets bored, he gets lonely, his cat won’t even sleep with him anymore. He’s been sleeping in the kitchen. The cat.
"Wait, you get bored and lonely, so you order in?" I said. "That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t make one lick of sense."
If making sense were my strong suit any more than it’s Earl Butter’s, I might have pointed out instead of repeating myself that people and changes of scenery tend to happen in restaurants at a greater frequency than in one’s own studio apartment.
But I’m not a logician. I’m a restaurant reviewer. So I asked him where he’d ordered from.
"Red Jade," he said. "I got two things. Do you want to eat them with me?"
I thought about it while I was pulling into a parking space near his house, my mind clacking through a Rolodex of names of Chinese restaurants I’d been to. I knew I’d been there. I knew I’d written about it. The tricky part is remembering what you had to say, and whether or not you made it up entirely, or just parts of it.
I turned my car off, closed my eyes, thought, and said, "What did you get?"
Chicken with something, and chicken with something else, he said.
"I’ll be right up. I’m already here." But I had just played soccer, first game back after a more-than-one-month layoff, and after that I’d helped Sockywonk move from her new apartment to her even newer one. I might have fallen asleep for a minute.
For sure I was moving slowly, and by the time I climbed the stairs to his 3rd-floor studio, the delivery had been delivered. It was in a tied-up plastic bag on his kitchen table, and Earl Butter had changed his mind. "Let’s eat out," he said.
So we walked back down and got in my car. "What do you want to eat?" I asked.
"Anything but Chinese."
"I like bun," he said. So we beelined for the ‘Loin, and Pho Tan Hoa, where I’d tried to eat before but failed because, astoundingly, they close at 7 p.m. Why a red-blooded restaurant would close at 7 p.m. I will leave for better minds than mine to figure out. But this one does. So it was a good time to go there, not quite six.
I’d heard about their pho, and that’s what I ordered, a small bowl with rare steak and beef balls ($6.50). Small = gargantuan. I took some home for lunch.
Earl Butter got bun, vermicelli with imperial rolls and grilled pork ($7). I tasted, and I liked.
We also noticed, after we’d ordered, that they had Bo Tai Chanh ($8), the raw steak appetizer that I love, you know, sprinkled with ground peanuts and mint, and marinated in lemon juice and fish sauce. So we after-ordered that, for dessert.
When it came, it took my breath away. It was a mountain of meat, thin sliced and folded over on top of and on top of and on top of until you had, basically, well, yeah, a mountain of meat. Roughly the size of the biggest burrito you ever saw. Except it was all meat.
Except it wasn’t, we found out soon enough. Hiding under the just meat was a somewhat smaller mountain of just onions. Which barely broke my breathlessness because I love onions too. And anyway, even with the oniony underpadding, it was still way more meat than anyone else gives you with this plate. And it was raw and red and just delicious. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Atmosphere: fish tank.
New favorite restaurant.
PHO TAN HOA
Daily: 8 a.m.7 p.m.
431 Jones, SF
L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.