It is a Sunday morning and I am standing in the sanctuary, nervously awaiting the arrival of Paul Tran, my new friend and "in" of sorts. A church choir prepares for mass in the adjacent room, harmonizing in a language not my own. Older men huddle in groups, chatting in their Sunday best. Young families whisk their children down the hall to Sunday school. My husband and I crowd uncomfortably together, checking our watches, glancing at the door each time it opens, looking for Tran. We are at St. Joseph's Vietnamese Catholic Church, and mass is about to start.
My search for the best bowl of pho (pronounced "fuh"), the comforting and classic Vietnamese noodle soup, has led me here.
Of course, I began my search in all the usual places, including the wide swath of pho joints up and down Central Avenue, where many Vietnamese restaurants can be found. I spoke with Kathryn Abernathy, native Charlottean and global eater, who told me the best bowl of Northern pho in town is at Pho Hoa and her favorite Southern bowl is at Akahana, both on Central Avenue. I spoke with Phung Nguyen of Ben Thanh Vietnamese Restaurant, who taught me about the regional differences in a bowl of pho. Northerners prepare a more savory broth, rich with bone marrow; Southerners serve a sweeter broth, while those from Central Vietnam favor spice, lots of it.
No doubt, these places serve a proper bowl of pho, but when I came to interview Father Tri Truong, the priest at St. Joseph's, and Tran, a parishioner, I remembered something a friend once told me: If you want to discover the heart of any culture's food, find the church ladies.
I arrived at St. Joseph's innocently enough, inquiring about the upcoming Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, festival. When asked where he goes to get a good bowl of pho, Tran points to the fellowship hall and says, "Here, at church."
Tran is part of the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants, who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. As part of the group of individuals (sometimes referred to as "boat people") who took to the sea to escape oppressive Communist rule after the Vietnam War, he arrived in the United States in 1981.
Tran left Vietnam with his father and traveled in a small boat for four days, two of them without food or water, and landed in an Indonesian refugee camp for six months before gaining safe passage to the United States. During those times, Tran said, he held on to his faith and "prayer, lots of prayer." St. Joseph's is what Tran calls his "second home," and at over 20 years old, it is viewed as the long-standing center of the Vietnamese Catholic community in Charlotte.
"It is a place where I can come to be with my community, where I can give back what I gained," Tran says.
Sitting inside the packed church, an outsider peeking in, the sense of community is palpable. I suspect this is what Father Tri wanted me to see when he invited me to fellowship. There is no English spoken, yet my husband and I connect to something greater inside the church, anchored by our Catholic upbringing and welcomed by the community.
After services, there is a mass exodus to the fellowship hall. This is where parishioners come together to enjoy food from home, prepared by their beloved church ladies. Members immediately head over to a long table full of Vietnamese food, crowding around with dollar bills in their hands, not unlike the bettors at the race track, eager to purchase the limited supply of homemade goods. Tran expedites our passage, collecting food for us, gratis.
There are brown bags full of egg rolls, containers filled with pork larb, a salad made of pork, rice noodles and fresh herbs, and delicacies you won't find just anywhere, like goi cuon, a special spring roll wrapped in pork, or Bahn gio, a pork and mushroom dumpling wrapped in banana leaves.
We find our seats at one of the round fellowship tables, next to a family of four. Tran returns with two bowls of pho, freshly prepared that morning. The broth is rich and savory. Fresh herbs and golden drops of glistening fat cover the surface. Below, a mountain of noodles and meat swim in the bone-soaked broth. We are served Dac Biet, pho with a little bit of everything in it: razor thin slices of beef, tripe as delicate as its rice noodle companions and meatballs made of tendon.
We slurp and smile and take mental notes on how to use our spoons properly as we watch whole families dining on the food of their culture. One of the ladies at our table looks up and asks, "You like the soup?" We nod, mouths full.
After lunch, we meet Viet-Nguyen, one of the women who prepared our extraordinary meal. She and her husband used to own a restaurant called Huong Viet, but now she simply volunteers her service to the church.
It is this commitment to church and community that is intricately woven into the fabric of St. Joseph's. Though faith is what ultimately created this community, it is the food that tethers the congregation to their culture.
"All the dishes are like home," says Tran.
Enjoy a taste of Vietnamese culture at the upcoming two-day Tet celebration at St. Joseph's Vietnamese Catholic Church, 4929 Sandy Porter Road. Feb. 9, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. and Feb. 10, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.