Despite what crazy people will tell you, pho is an all-season affair. In summer, the heat makes you sweat—and what is sweat but Mother Nature's air conditioning that just works backward! Almost every day for me is a day for pho (because I am not at all crazy). The day of my pho-club outing is the first big rain of the season, the first day for raincoats and umbrellas—a day almost everyone can agree (unless they are crazy) is ideal for pho. At lunch, I eat my staple—the pho chay with extra tofu at Ballet ($6.95), which has saved me from many a hunger pang and hangover. The steaming broth and spice arsenal just burn out all the bad stuff! It's also within a two-block radius of our office. Pho chay and a Tsingtao ($3.95) will cure anything the world can throw at you (as long as it's the Western world and not the third world—those guys are fucked).
Because I have apparently become The Stranger's resident pho expert, which required little more than eating it all the fucking time, I've been charged with joining the Pho-Natics (GET IT?), a Seattle club of pho enthusiasts, for a dinner at Pho 99 in White Center. There is no initiation rite required to join the Pho-Natics. When I ask club president Sean Hoops how one becomes a member, he says, "You go to our Facebook page and hit 'Like.'" He says they have about 300 members and that usually about 30 people show up to each meeting, of which they've had 15 so far. At the peak of tonight's attendance, there will be 25 people. The early arrivals wait for almost everyone to get there before they order. (They called ahead to warn the restaurant.)
"It feels sweaty in here," says a girl from another party, sounding strangely delighted. I, for one, am sweating gobs from the amount of sriracha and inflammatory sauces I've added—a mere trace compared to many Pho-Natics, who are happily slurping broth that's turned blood-red from substantial amounts of fiery additives. I've ordered a large pho tai ($7.20, tax included), which comes with the basic in-the-bowl trappings—beef (good but not great), green onions, cilantro, noodles, and onions. (I love onions in almost every context except in pho). On the plate is an exceptionally fresh and crisp set of typical adornments—bean sprouts, cilantro, lime wedges, and jalapeño slices, the last of which one Pho-Natic tells me helps with the tendon: "They just help to give a texture different than the gelatinous tendon." The large is a bad move—just more noodles and broth. Said broth is well-balanced and piping hot.
Afterward, the sweat dripping off my forehead and onto the lenses of my glasses makes me feel like a freak as I interview the group, none of whom seems to exhibit this particular problem. It doesn't help the feeling that Kelly O, who's come to take photos, apparently rolled out of bed and straight down to the office that day—her hair pinned up, looking like a longer, blonder version of Alfalfa's hairstyle from The Little Rascals. She's wearing green steel-shank work boots, thrift-store pants tucked into them, a Green Bay Packers jersey, and eyeglasses that were clearly stolen from Wayne's World's Garth. None of these people really look like weirdos—the core group members all know each other, mostly from working at Harborview—but they don't seem to mind that we do.
Although a few Pho-Natics tonight are newcomers, most attendees are die-hards. Sweatshirts and T-shirts have been made. Tripe and tendon are not avoided, and the answer to my question "How hot is too hot?" is met with responses like "I don't know. I haven't reached that plane yet" or "It's never too hot." Relative newcomer Lisa's thirst for heat is thwarted by a temporary condition: "Right now, I'm pregnant. So I can't do it so hot, because later I pay for it."
Club president Sean tries something involving quail eggs: "It's like a soft-boiled egg. I'd do it again in a second." These people are culinary risk-takers. "You kind of have to be," says Bill. "There are a lot of smaller restaurants, and you don't know what their specialty is going to be or what they're going to put in it, so sometimes it's a gamble." But Neil, Sean's partner, is the Anti-Pho. "I'm not a big soup-eater at all," he says. So at every meeting, Neil orders just a bowl of rice. "Most places' rice is the same, but some places make bad rice. Some of it's too beefy, too meaty."
As we leave, I feel like a coward for not gnawing on some tendons or stomach lining or some such weird shit. Then again, these people are crazy.