The finer points of pho, with poet and 'pho-natic' Jack Prelutsky

Eating on the Edge: The garnishes, the sauces, the food tales told over a shared meal in a city that is "pho-rocious" for its size.

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Poet Jack Prelutsky's art is often inspired by his love of food.

Eating on the Edge: The garnishes, the sauces, the food tales told over a shared meal in a city that is "pho-rocious" for its size.

The poet Jack Prelutsky happens to live in Seattle, his home for the past 35 years and probably for the rest of his life because, unlike many of his peers — he is 70 years old — he doesn’t care much for the sun and heat.

He and his wife Carolynn spend most days at their house on Bainbridge Island and the rest in their studio apartment on Queen Anne, a small loft that serves as their forward base when he has business in the city — his web guru lives in the Greenwood neighborhood — or when they want to enjoy the amenities of the city.

Prelutsky, who became the nation’s first “Children’s Poet Laureate,” five years ago, loves baseball (he has season tickets to the Mariners), and the opera (he attends every performance of the Seattle Opera and sings in a community choir). He also has watched every episode of every “Star Trek” television show. Among his many talents — he plays guitar too — is one for the video game Pac-Man. Maybe it has something to do with his great vision, which until recently was better than 20-20.

Prelutsky also loves to eat, in a way only a few people I’ve met do. I don’t mean that he knows a lot about good cooking, or that he appreciates a fine restaurant, although both are true. A passionate eater equally loves a Hebrew National hot dog grilled on a Teflon skillet at 3 a.m.

Prelutsky’s tastes are fairly wide, so much of the food he likes is the kind only big cities tend to have. He particularly likes Vietnamese food. At one time, he claimed he had eaten at every Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle, and it was not uncommon for him to eat pho for lunch every day.

He is probably not the only artist for whom fixation is part of the creative process.

His poetry collections are often built on a single theme, taken from the ordinary rhythms of life but observed to maniacally delightful detail. Of course, food comes into play too. One of his most famous compilations, Scranimals, is about "broccolions," "bananacondas," and such.

Given that he loves pho, he is lucky he lives in Seattle — or maybe it is because he lives in Seattle. According to the all-things-pho website Pho Fever, Seattle and San Francisco have more pho restaurants (74 and 78, respectively) than any other city except Houston (96), which because of the Gulf coast shrimp industry is the locus of Vietnamese immigration in America.

Although if you take San Francisco and San Jose as a whole, the Bay Area has 136 pho joints according to Pho Fever. And if you count Los Angeles and Orange County as one entity, Southern California has 112 (144 if you add in San Diego). The point is that Seattle, for a city of its size, is pho-rocious.

Pho inspires unique devotion, perhaps because of its simplicity, balance, regularity, and the ritual it inspires. Where pho is common, it is reliably good, served the same way from store to store, hot and nourishing, comforting in all kinds of weather, all hours of the day.

Pho Fever is not the only Internet entity dedicated to the consumption and worship of pho. A local Facebook group, The Seattle Pho-Natics (the word pho seems to lend itself particularly well to puns), claims 97 members as counted by the number of people who “like” the group.

The group recently called out a pho restaurant named Pho So 1, at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, the traditional axes of the Vietnamese-American business community in Seattle. Pho So 1 recently changed owners, expanded its menu, and received an interior makeover of new chairs, an aquarium, and artwork with an Italian theme, of all things.

Pho So 1 also happens to be Prelutsky’s go-to pho joint from years ago. It was his favorite back when it was far less pretty. He stuck with it through its period of slight decline, before it changed owners, and still considers the new incarnation his favorite (or at least one of his favorites).

Of all the places he has tried, Pho So 1 held the most gravity for him.

“They have the best broth and they know how to cook tendon,” he said this week over lunch at Pho So 1. “They knew me here. I didn’t have to order. They just knew what I wanted.”

He learned all the Vietnamese words for the ingredients in pho, like tai (rare beef) and gan (tendon), trying every combination before settling into a favorite.

At Pho So 1, he ordered a large bowl ($6.99; $6.15 for a small bowl) with rare beef and extra tendon. He dressed his pho with bean sprouts and five slices of jalapeno pepper which he made sure to count before dropping them into the broth. After the broth had been sufficiently infused, he removed the jalapenos until each slice had been accounted for.

Some garnish their pho so that it’s spicy. I like the broth unadulterated. Some are heavy-handed with bean sprouts. I prefer a light touch only because a large amount tends to speed the cooling of the soup.

Prelutsky’s treatment is fairly unique. He requested extra slices of lime so that he could concoct a sauce of lime juice, Sriracha, and hoisin.

“I used to use vinegar but they stopped putting it out on the table,” Prelutsky said. “I guess the vinegar attracted tiny flies…I probably ate some without meaning to."

Which might serve for the basis of a good poem. After reading from his book Rolling Harvey Down the Hill to a class of second-graders, some of them ate worms, following the example set by a protagonist of one of his poems.

I first met Prelutsky (to interview him for a profile) shortly after he was named Children’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation, publishers of Poetry magazine. The title carried a two-year term; two other poets have since received the honor. Prelutsky remains one of the most prolific and durable poets in the country, having produced more than 40 collections of children’s poems for an audience that spans at least two generations.

He is always at work on new poetry and regularly reads it, sometimes set to music, as it was last month in Illinois when he was accompanied by the DuPage Symphony Orchestra playing Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.”

In conversation, he is rarely at a loss for words, moving from one tangent to the next until he himself has forgotten where the story was heading. This happened several times during the course of lunch.

“… so what were we talking about again?” he would pause and ask.

He recently suffered from a case of diverticulitis, an inflammation of the intestinal wall, and had to have a foot of his colon removed. He had to swear off some of his favorite foods for a while but can now again eat anything he wants.

“If I was a cat, I’d be dead,” he said. “I’ve had my nine lives.”

He nearly died in a house fire when he was a baby. He almost drowned twice, was nearly shot to death during a random encounter (the gun failed to fire), and survived a car accident that sent his VW bus down a 200-foot ravine (luckily a passer-by who happened to be a nurse pulled up minutes later).

He has many anecdotes about food. Through them, it becomes obvious the guy loves to eat. This being Seattle, he leans hard toward Asian food — he says it is his favorite — a preference you might presume he owes to his wife, a Korean-American who grew up in Hawaii, but in fact has little to do with her.

“I was there first,” Prelutsky clarified. In fact, Carolynn is a fussy eater by comparison and balks at seafood.

Prelutsky is fussy about almost nothing when it comes to food — except for inattentive or oblivious servers, of which he has many stories (none involving Pho So 1). He loves the sushi at Maneki, the dumplings at Fu Man, and the roast pork at Kau Kau. He is a regular at the latter and has a routine with the owner.

At the sight of Prelutsky, the owner falsely announces, “no side pork.” A (fake) crestfallen Prelutsky goes along with the gag and starts to walk out the door, before the two men laugh. The joke is funny every time. That is how men show affection for one other.

What is instructive about Prelutsky’s embrace of food is how easily it could have turned out differently. His younger brother, who possesses the same genes and grew up under the same circumstances (in the Bronx, in a working-class, Jewish family), will eat nothing outside of the same brown-and-tan diet he was raised on.

“Growing up in my family,” Prelutsky said, “going out for Chinese food meant the No. 3 combination: chow mein, egg rolls, spare ribs, fried rice, and won ton soup…

"Or as my uncle would say,” he said, copying his uncle’s Bronx drawl, “Chinese food is gah-bage.”

Prelutsky left the Bronx to attend the High School of Music & Art and, later, Hunter College. He spent his young adulthood living the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. His contemporaries included other young, creative types like Woody Allen, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Bill Cosby.

“I wanted to see the world,” Prelutsky said, food being no exception to the strategy. “I wanted to really experience life…It’s a big world.”

By which he meant that taste is relative, but an appetite is constant.

If you go: Pho So 1, 1207 S. Jackson St., suite 107, Seattle, 206-860-2824. Open daily 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Menu and other details here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at