September 11, 2002
"No Number fifty one?" asked the waiter. He stopped scribbling and glanced at us, eyebrows raised. In close to three years of ordering weekly takeout from Nam-Viet Pho-79, our neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant, never before, nor since have we bypassed Number Fifty-One. Each time, we rush home, unlatch the lid of plain Styrofoam container, and behold! Beneath a sprinkling of finely chopped peanuts, paper-thin fired shallots and an occasional speck of cilantro lies a tangle of glistening rice noodles slicked with oil, sugar intertwined with slivers of poached chicken, chunks of roast pork, a few token minuscule shrimp, ribbons of softly scrambled egg, sauteed half moons of yellow and red onion and the occasional inch-long length of green scallion. The proper name for the Number Fifty-One, Banh Pho Xao, translates quite simply as "stir-fried noodles." But simple they are not.Their subtlety, however is lost on some. The noodles are less peanut-y than pad Thai, not as dense as drunken noodles and nothing at all like (shudder) lo mein. Their recipe orgininated in South Vietnam in the restaurant kitchen of Ngoc Anh Tran's grandfather, and was passed down first to her father, then to Tran. When she and her husband, Thoi Nguyen, founded Nam-Viet in 1986, they modified the recipe slightly and changed the name to Extravagant Noodles. (The menu, once rife with wonderful three and four syllable adjectives, has since been revamped. Number Fifty-One is now called Nam-Viet Stir Fried Noodles.) We didn't order Number Fifty-One that night for the fear of the noodles might become a commonplace. But all it took was one Saterday morning without Extravagant Omelet eggs with leftovers of Number Fifty-One, to convince us otherwise.