Fork in the Road: Phuong To
Just off Walnut Grove Road in Cordova, tucked between a gas station and a liquor store, A-Nails seems an unlikely place to find a tasty lunch. Only a few regular customers know about the homemade Vietnamese dishes brought in by the shop’s owner, Phuong To. Phuong’s mother, who owned a restaurant in Vietnam 50 years ago, prepares a daily feast for the salon’s employees. Recently, Phuong gave me a tour of this hidden lair of deliciousness.
The area that serves as a lunch room houses a dorm-size fridge, a microwave, and a low table. There is space for one person at a time to enter and prepare a plate for lunch. Lidded glass Pyrex dishes are stacked on the table, each dish holding a homemade concoction. Rice, of course, fills one container. Nuoc cham, the ubiquitous Vietnamese sauce, is in another. Mung beans — excellent for digestion, according to Phuong — are next to a saucy fish and pork dish. A mixture of vegetables, mushrooms, and shrimp shimmer enticingly in another bowl. Sliced cucumber and cilantro will add a cooling complement to the spicy fish and pork. A package of rice papers initially reminds me of small plastic shower curtains. But after a brief dunking (really, more of a slide-through) in a bowl of water, they become the supple and translucent containers for various seafood, meat, and vegetables. Last, three curvaceous mangoes await slicing.
At this point in the interview, I am reconsidering my career path based on the lunch benefits of certain employers. Fortunately for me, Phuong is generous with her knowledge and her lunch food, as well as her stories. As I ate and listened, I found that Phuong, like Vietnamese cuisine, embodies a balance of opposites: spicy and cool, sour and sweet, and something undefinable that pulls everything together.
Sour flavors, mainly in the forms of pickled vegetables and citrus, impart a pleasant tang to Vietnamese food. Pickled carrots and daikon radish brighten many noodle dishes. Lemons and limes may be squeezed into soups to add an undercurrent of sourness. This flavor adds complexity to dishes that also contain salty or sweet elements.
Phuong’s life encompasses its share of sourness. When she talks about her childhood in southern Vietnam, her voice gets softer.
“It was very bad for me there when I was growing up,” she says.
The child of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier father whom she never met, Phuong was often antagonized by other children because of her mixed race. Another hardship — common among children during that time — was balancing daytime employment with evening schooling. Starting at age 13, she sold food from a cart on the streets of her city. As a young adult, Phuong applied for entry to the United States under a special program for children of American soldiers.
Heat is another key component of Vietnamese food. More of a sensation than a flavor, spice is, nevertheless, part of the delicate balance of many dishes. Chiles burn brightly or simmer low. When immersed in liquid, like jalapeños in pho (noodle soup), they increase the dish’s spice factor with time; the last bites are the hottest. Another vehicle for spice is condiments, which customize the heat for each eater. Chili-garlic sauce and Sriracha, as well as additional peppers, are often served alongside Vietnamese restaurant food.
At just over five feet tall and with a lilting voice, Phuong might not immediately stand out as a powerful person. But like a jalapeño in pho, she has transformed her surroundings since arriving in Memphis in 1991. She was newly divorced and brought with her a young son, her mother, and stepfather. Her first home was a small apartment behind Viet Hoa Market on Cleveland. A couple of years later, Phuong remarried and found employment at a uniform company. When she missed work because of a difficult pregnancy, she lost her job. One week later, her husband, who was working as a truck driver, was in a serious accident. Some days, she had very little food in her refrigerator. A turning point came after the birth of her second son, when Phuong’s mother introduced her to a friend who owned a nail salon. This introduction launched a career that has lasted to the present day.
To keep spiciness in check, Vietnamese use herbs and cooling vegetables, or even unripe fruits such as mango or papaya. Vietnamese “salad” — a heaping plate of cilantro, basil, mint, cucumber, or lettuce — accompanies most noodle dishes, soups, and pancakes (banh xeo). These fresh ingredients also add crunchy texture, contrasting with slippery rice noodles or tender pork.
If Phuong came to Memphis for a fresh start, her success is due to her persistence and work ethic. After completing her licensure as a nail technician, she worked in several salons. In 1996, she purchased her first nail salon. Over the next two decades, she bought and sold several businesses, had three more children, and eventually moved to Cordova. Phuong now lives in a larger home with her family, a far cry from her tiny apartment behind the supermarket. Her shop is clean, inviting, and somehow absent of the harsh chemical smells that sometimes characterize nail salons.
Sweet flavors run through Vietnamese entrees via barbecued meats and sugar-laced sauces, such as nuoc cham. After the meal, dessert — fresh tropical fruits — cools a mouth warmed by fish sauce and chiles. Mangoes, pineapples, papayas, bananas, watermelon, and strawberries brighten plates and refresh palates warmed by chiles. These fruits also work well as breakfast smoothies for a busy working mother.
“Every morning, my husband cuts up six or seven kinds of fruit and makes a smoothie for me,” Phuong says and takes a demure sip.
One sweetness in Phuong’s life is her family. Pictures of her four sons and one daughter fill the camera roll of her mobile phone. She works long hours at her shop, which keeps her from spending as much time as she might like with her children. But Phuong doesn’t complain about her job.
“I don’t mind working hard. When I get home, all my kids are healthy. They’re good kids and they listen to their parents. That’s amazing and that’s all I need,” says Phuong.
That Special Something
When I ask Phuong about the secret to cooking delicious Vietnamese food, she pauses for a few moments.
“The sauce,” she finally concludes. “If you make a good cake [such as banh xeo] and the sauce isn’t good, it all tastes bad. The sauce is really important.”
Fittingly, Vietnamese sauces often incorporate sweet, salty, spicy, and sour flavors. Many also contain umami, the mysterious fifth taste often found in savory foods such as fish sauce. Complementary flavors are achieved with simple ingredients: garlic, sugar, soy or fish sauce, lemon or lime juice, and chiles. When ordinary foods such as shrimp or bean sprouts take a dip in Vietnamese sauce, the results are dazzling. A shrimp blooms with heat and sourness. A humble bean sprout exudes sweet and salty sass.
Sometimes I think I understand the food and people that cross my path with little effort. But a taste, a story, a fruit, a life, are all richly complex. When I pay attention, the everyday is truly extraordinary.
Get Phoung's Banh Xio Pancake recipe at the link on the left.