The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Pho Builds A Community

November 7th, 2009 · 6 Comments · Posted in Blog


Our favorite soup, now a walk away

Our favorite soup, now just a walk away

Last night we took ourselves out to a new pho joint here in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of the District of Columbia, then came home and watched a documentaryon public television about D.C. in the ’60s, culminating, of course, with the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

At first blush, the connection between Vietnamese noodle soup and one of the country’s most tumultuous moments might not be immediately apparent. But I assure you the connection is there. Until recently, the area where the pho restaurant is located was a wasteland remnant of the events of 1968. As former D.C. Council Member Charlene Drew Jarvis notes in the film, it took 30 years for areas of the District devastated by the riots to begin rebuilding.

In many ways, Washington, D.C., is still a fiefdom lorded over by Congress, which was much quicker to rebuild Germany and Japan following World War II. But that’s another story.

When I first moved to the District seven years after the riots, the once bustling commercial zone along 14th Street in Columbia Heights was a scene of vacant lots and rubble surrounded by chain link fences. Commerce consisted mostly of dank liquor stores, drug dealers and a broken down Safeway supermarket. We dreaded ever having to set foot in the post office. It reminded me of a scene from “Fort Apache the Bronx.”

But as the years passed, a vision for developing Columbia Heights began to coalesce and grew increasingly concrete. Construction started on one of the last segments of the city’s subway system, including a centrally located station in Columbia Heights. I remember looking at a house for sale–a classic D.C. row house–within spitting distance of the future subway entrance. The street was closed behind Jersey barriers and mounds of dirt. We could have had that house for a song–alas, we had already purchased something down the road, nothing to complain about.

We followed the development via our neighborhood listserv, which often contained objections to plans for big box stores such as Target. Too much like suburbia, the commenters ranted. They wanted a main street lined with locally owned, mom-and-pop businesses, more like the old days.

Newcomers to the area of course know none of this. Years later, Columbia Heights is a happening place, anchored by that subway station and a shopping strip surrounding that very same Target. Where once we would have feared to tread is jammed with foot traffic and shoppers. There are restaurants of every sort–a British gastro pub, a hamburger joint, a Pot Belly’s, a Ruby Tuesday, a Panda Express–as well as sidewalk cafes, multiple ice cream shops, shoe stores, office supply, FedEx, Vitamin Shoppe, wine store….You get the picture. We’ve even been promised a supermarket focused on local produce. The neighborhood, in other words, has been completely transformed.

We are not enamored of runaway capitalism. But there is something to be said for smart development. For us, the benefits have been enormous. We no longer have to drive to the suburbs to do our shopping. And now, we no longer have to drive to the suburbs to sit down to a meal of one of our favorite foods–Vietnamese pho. The car stays in the driveway, which has to be good for the planet as well.

In fact, thanks to those visionaries who redesigned a neighborhood torn apart by violence, we now have a thriving community in which we can pick our daughter up from school, walk to a restaurant for Vietnamese pho and find three stores on the same block-each catering to a different income demographic–to shop for her winter coat.

Watching those old black-and-white images of the city in flames, I can’t help thinking that what’s happened all these years later is pretty cool. I have to think Dr. King would approve.

Leave a Comment

Please note: Your comment may have to wait for approval to be published to ensure that we don't accidentally publish "spam". We thank you for understanding.


  • kimsikes

    Yay! Another pho fan! I’m glad that it is finally accessible to you. My husband and I can’t go for more than a week without it. In my brief unemployment period I made it a point to learn how to make chicken pho from my mom who is Vietnamese. That wonderful day happened last week. It was hours of torture smelling the aromatic broth bubbling before we sat down to enjoy my first co-creation of pho. The best part of it all was that I used all natural ingredients (ie: no MSG) and Polyface chicken!!

  • Ed Bruske

    Kim, we are pho fanatics–including daughter–and were tired of having to drive into Virginia for it. I spent considerable time researching pho for an article I wrote for the Post’s food section a few years ago. I was taught how to make beef pho by the then-owner of Pho Tay Ho in Bailey’s Crossroads, and chicken pho by one of the owners of Pho 75. MSG, or “magic spice,” is pretty traditional in pho, but I’m glad you are able to enjoy your soup without it. For myself, I am now eating pho without the noodles and in all honestly I think I prefer it that way–less to get in the way of the broth.

  • kimsikes

    Pho-natics? Haha. Ed, I HAVE that article you wrote! How crazy! I remember being pretty stoked coming across that in the paper.

  • Ed Bruske

    Kim, it’s a small world for sure. Last time I looked, they still had that article framed and hanging on the wall at Four Sisters. We had to stop going to our favorite pho place–Pho Tey Ho–because the owner wouldn’t let us pay for dinner.

  • kimsikes

    That’s awfully nice of them but I’m sure they miss you guys coming around. Have you been to the new Four Sisters yet? It’s absolutely gorgeous and the food is just as good. So you don’t attempt to cook your own pho even though you have the recipe straight from the chef?

  • Ed Bruske

    Kim, I actually think the food has improved since the move. They also lost one of the sisters. But that far out in Virginia traffic is not something we do on a frequent basis. I am happy for their success, but I do not plan to be a regular customer. (Frankly, getting into Eden Center was enough of a hassle.)