Good pho is hard to come by in this country. In Hanoi, I’ve sat on tiny plastic stools on narrow, wandering side streets full of color and smoke. There, in the sweltering heat, I’ve slurped up salty noodles with heaping handfuls of the freshest basil, mung bean sprouts, sliced chicken or pork, sometimes squid and little red chilies.

It was impossible (at least for me) to ever find the pho shop where I’d last eaten, as Hanoi’s chaotic landscape is forever changing, and even the buildings and street signs seemed to transform before my eyes. I found myself turned around again and again. That is to say my terrible sense of direction enabled me to sample many different varieties of sublime pho. It is a practice one could build a life upon.

In Hanoi, the soup is deep and rich despite the broth’s delicate consistency, and the noodles are cooked perfectly – just soft enough to absorb every individual flavor you put into your bowl. I’d never before eaten anything whose various tastes could be so specifically pointed out – (the bright bite of a scallion, the tender meat, the pleasant sting of chili, the scent of basil) – and yet also had come together so fluidly. After I returned home, I fretted that I’d never experience that particular unity of taste again, and certainly not in Portland.

But a few years later, quite recently in fact, a Vietnamese friend suggested I try Veranda Noodle Bar. “Their Vietnamese basil is so fresh!” she said enthusiastically. I paused, remembering Hanoi, longing for the basil I’d eaten there.

I wandered into Veranda last week. It was an off hour, and only a few tables were full. I ordered the Pho Ga, (pho with chicken, $10.95), and soon enough a steaming bowl of noodles arrived, with its usual plate of basil, sprouts, lime and green chili peppers. The broth was rich, salty, warming goodness, nothing like the watery, flavorless soups I’d eaten elsewhere in the States. I added all the basil, and asked for more.

The waitress noticed I hadn’t put Sriracha in my soup. It’s not spicy enough for me, I explained. She put her hand up as if to say, “Stop eating. Wait for it,” then disappeared, returning seconds later with a small dish of deep red, thick paste in a tiny pool of oil. “Ot sa te,” she said proudly.

I added it all. Not only was it spicy, but it was deep and full of flavor, with the kind of darkness and heat that I adore. It brought out the meatiness of the broth, the freshness of the vegetables, the savor of the perfectly thin rice noodles.

This is what I think of when I remember Hanoi. This is what I reach for as the weather cools. This is the stuff that can both soothe the soul and cure a cold. This is a complicated, beautiful dish based on pure simplicity. This could even be love. And this is what we talk about when we talk about pho.

Anna Stoessinger is a writer who works in advertising. She lives in Maine with her husband, Keith, their son, Henry and her dog, Bess. Anna can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @astoessinger.

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