Party Kingdom Bistro
1739 Maybank Hwy.
Prices: Inexpensive ($6-$9.50)
Serving: Lunch, Dinner, and Weekend Brunch
A giant pink octopus awaits your arrival at the Party Kingdom, as do a half-dozen Skee-Ball lanes, mazes of indoor playground equipment, various Taiwanese video consoles, an entire build-your-own-teddy-bear room complete with a 12-foot tall psychedelic-looking mushroom, and piles of candy rivaled only by the cheesy tourist shops lining the City Market. Indeed, it looks as if a giant Asian clown car careened off course, ran over an entire family of Hello Kitties, dragged them through an abandoned Showbiz Pizza Place, and exploded inside the Piggly Wiggly strip mall on Maybank Highway. Throngs of screaming toddlers scuttle underfoot, husbands battle electric terrorists with dual Uzis, and stoned college students — we predict — will soon descend, ogling the electronic flicker of pink video bunnies while munching on fried egg rolls and beef satay.
You could go for any of the dishes and be well served, even by the hotdogs, which could pass muster at The Joe, if they only had pickled okra and hot relish. But most people stop by to try the pho (pronounced fuh), steaming bowls of spicy Vietnamese broth full of tender beef brisket and slippery noodles, served with the requisite plate of Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and hot chilies, yet deceptively obscured by the day-glo cacophony of family fun.
Pho may be the national dish of Vietnam, eaten by millions daily, and derived from a cross-cultural amalgamation of French, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and (here at least) American influences, but it hides in the corners of our town, often inside an Asian grocery or on the back page of a Thai menu.
Pho Bac tried to infiltrate the mainstream in Mt. Pleasant a couple of years ago only to pack up shop and move to North Chuck. Their bowls of pho display the deep, complex spiciness of a long-simmered broth, offering the full gamut of permutations including the pho dac biet, the house special that is the Vietnamese equivalent of the proverbial "refrigerator soup," if you happened to have some beef flank, brisket, tripe, and meatballs hanging around in the bottom drawer. Of course, one should always ask for extra beef tendon for full effect.
Down on Rivers Avenue, Pho No. 1 does a brisk business in the H&L Market, even if most people stop by the cash-only restaurant counter to buy whole crispy ducks smelling of anise, ginger, and cloves, heads still attached. On a good day, the "rare" beef won't be overcooked, and the broth will have the redolence of a Saigon market rather than the steamy scent of sweaty socks that leaves you wishing you had grabbed two ducks and run home with some spicy rice noodles, hoisin sauce, and a bottle of Gewürztraminer.
The perfect bowl, the kind that my Vietnamese neighbor Lang makes, squirms with fat noodles in a broth deeply flavored by beef bones and star anise, perhaps with a dash of Srirachi and a few torn sheaves of Thai basil. This kind of pho can be hard to find — which is why people are lining up at the Party Kingdom to farm their kids off to a Japanese whack-a-mole game painted in 15 shades of bright pink.
Lang often travels to China and Vietnam for months at a time, so you'll find us down at Party Kingdom, three-year-old in tow, glasses all steamed up, with a sloppy mess dribbling down our shirts and a big, five-spice smile on our faces. The menu has other stuff too: lemongrass beef skewers; gigantic spring rolls packed with shrimp, noodles, and fresh basil leaves; super-spicy piles of beef salad overflowing with ginger and fish sauce that coat the tendrils of meat; mountains of Pad Thai noodles bound by a sticky sweet peanut crunch, cut only by a cold squirt of lime. And the kids can scarf down pizza, or chicken tenders, or some other American fare, or perhaps branching out to the crispy coconut shrimp, my daughter's favorite.
For me it's all about the pho, but don't even think about asking for my Skee-Ball tickets. I'm trading them in on an AstroPop for dessert.
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