Pho and misophonia

An aversion to noisy eating and a love of pho collide

My favorite foodie movie ever is 1985's Tampopo. It's built around the story of a Japanese noodle shop. I've always related most to a scene in which an etiquette teacher instructs her students in the "proper" way to eat spaghetti — to twirl the noodles in a spoon and eat them without nosily slurping and sucking up dangling noodles.

As long as I can remember, I've been completely intolerant of noisy eating. I've written this off as a peculiar phobia. As long as background noise obscures slobbery sounds and I can look away, I'm fine. However, when I wrote briefly about it two years ago, a reader informed me that my "phobia" is a neurological deviation called misophonia. Nearly a dozen readers wrote telling me they have the same problem.

As the students try to follow the teacher's instructions, they hear a nearby diner voraciously slurping his spaghetti. They all start doing the same — as, eventually, does the teacher, which pisses me off. At least etiquette has always rationalized my problem.

So, I have avoided noodle shops as much as I can, especially the pho shops that line Buford Highway. Pho is Vietnam's renowned rice noodle soup made of spiced beef broth to which various sliced meats are added in the kitchen. At the table, diners add bean sprouts and herbs like basil and coriander, a squeeze of lime juice, etc. One eats with chopsticks and a spoon.

I decided to try out some exposure therapy by visiting some pho shops. I ended up feeling addicted after five successive meals. Understand: Misophonia has nothing to do with the sufferer's own eating. I can suck noodles with the best of them while rolling my eyes at others. Here's my tour with misophonia ratings:

So Ba (560 Gresham Ave., 404-627-9911, www.soba-eav.com)

I visited So Ba twice during my week of pho-philia. My first impression was that it had strong, minty-sweet flavor. The servers swore that no mint was in the soup, so I'm assuming it was cooked with a good bit of basil.

That brings up a point about any pho's broth. Get a really good taste of it before you add herbs or sauces, because every cook uses spices in different ways. In this case, adding basil leaves would have been a mistake, while the sweetness begged for two lime wedges. Adding hoisin can boost sweetness dramatically in some cases and Sriracha may hide the layers of taste in a good bowl. Consider putting those on the side and dip the meats separately.

I ordered the pho with eye of round steak, well-done brisket, and flank steak. As the week progressed, I noticed that So Ba used quite less meat — and smaller pieces — than other pho shops I visited. I have to say, too, that my second bowl here included a clump of overcooked, sticky noodles.

Misophonia Rating: Each visit was with a single other person, including my partner Wayne. Unfortunately, misophonia's irritability increases in proportion to familiarity. Partners should eat back-to-back. The hip music is loud enough to hide actual sounds, although my friend during my second visit went out of his way to dangle noodles.

Pho Dai Loi #2 (4186 Buford Highway, 404-633-2111)

Almost everyone rates this the best pho shop in town. My bowl was packed with eye of round, well-done flank steak, marbled brisket, soft tendon, and bible tripe. Go ahead and spike the broth with Sriracha and hoisin if you must, but you may disturb the broth's almost shockingly powerful tastes of beef and other blooming flavors. There's a shimmer of fat. The aroma itself turns on the palate and you should always take a strong whiff of any pho before you start sucking noodles.

The meat slices were significantly thicker and larger than I encountered elsewhere. And don't be afraid of the bible tripe. It's smooth, not honeycombed, and you likely won't even know you're eating the shredded stuff.

Misophonia Rating: The place is fluorescently lit, so you can't miss anything. In fact, I had the view of two children splashing around in a bowl. Watching them eat was like sitting in front of a front-loading washing machine with the door ajar.

Happily, the place was so noisy with chatter that the sounds of my six companions were muted. Most got (delicious) bun dishes, which also require noodle-vacuuming. To my surprise, I was not grossed out. Maybe the exposure therapy was working. Or maybe in such circumstances the etiquette of remaining silent overpowers the rudeness of carping about sucky eating. Maybe it was the Xanax.

Pho Bac (4897 Buford Highway, 770-986-4273)

This is another very popular stop. I ordered the same bowl that I got at Pho Dai Loi. It was also loaded and, while the broth was super-savory, its spices didn't dance. Service was weird. One server stood at the table in silence after I told him I needed a few minutes longer to order.

Misophonia Rating: This restaurant is also blindingly bright. It is noisy enough to mainly hide slurping. However, every table seats eight people, making proximity to dribblers possible. My friend, who ordered a rice dish, and I were a few feet from a father and son. They were the highest-decibel people I encountered. They also consumed the pho in what seemed like seconds.

My overall verdict: These pho shops merit the agony but are definitely challenging.

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