Afterthoughts: Give me the Regular
In praise of the neighborhood spot.
Photo: Michael Keany
I’m moving in about a week. It’s not a big move; I’m not quitting Hawai‘i or anything that dramatic. I’m not even leaving town. The new place is just a couple of miles down the road, even closer to work than I already am. Still, I think it’s going to take some adjusting.
I’m going to miss McCully—the way it feels like a backwater suburb right in the middle of the city. The way you can look up to the Ko‘olaus and see rainbursts sweeping down the hill from Mānoa Valley. The tasty street names: Lime, Date, Citron. But the thing I’ll miss most is my regular neighborhood restaurant: Pho Bistro II.
It’s just a block away from my apartment, squeezed between an acupuncturist and a bodega, off of Kalākaua Avenue. My girlfriend and I have been walking over to eat pho and lemongrass chicken once a week for about three years now. The place is always humming with diners digging into steaming bowls of noodles, yet reservations are never needed. Walk in, and the server just nods at the nearest open table.
It’s a homey little space. There’s a candy bowl by the register, a devotional altar with fruit and incense and dollar bills in the corner. The radio is usually playing ’90s-era R&B. Every table has a condiment rack that gets refilled like clockwork—sometimes right while you’re eating.
And the pho! So good and so cheap. The broth is delicious by itself, but I’m a maximalist when it comes to these things: By now, I’ve perfected my mix of chili paste, hoisin and Sriracha—hot enough to make me sweat once I’m finished with the noodles and am slurping the last of the soup.
The whole experience is great, and it’s become a weekly ritual that never gets old. I treasure Pho Bistro II, even if it’s not really the kind of place most foodies would travel out of their way for. Not a Yelp darling, not the kind of place that expects reviews from city magazines.
Honolulu is full of these kinds of little restaurants. Small, family-run, casual shops that have been plugging away for years, their primary clientele the people who live right around the block. They may not get the hype and press that trendy, new concept restaurants do, but they’re making someone happy.
Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be more adventurous and try more of these spots. Even on my daily commute along King Street, there must be a dozen or more restaurants I’ve never been to. And yet, each day, I pass them by again.
But then, even if I did take the time to play tourist in my own hometown, would I truly get the full experience? Part of the warmth of your favorite neighborhood spot is the repetition, the familiarity. The owners who recognize you when you walk in the door, and know your order.
I’ll probably go back to Pho Bistro, even after I’ve moved. You don’t let pho that good disappear from your life so easily. But it won’t be the same. We’ll have to hop in the car, drive across town, fight for parking in the tiny lot next door. It’ll be tempting to experiment with pho joints closer to my new apartment, for convenience’s sake.
I’ll just have to cross my fingers that, once I’m moved and settled in, there’ll be another neighborhood gem I can make into a new weekly habit. I like being a regular.