La Petite Camille

I was caught up in a furious day of work, being pulled in all directions, and throughout it all I received several calls from my dad. Every time my phone rang I was caught up in something, so he finally texted me to say that it was my mom's birthday and that I should come home for dinner. With a free home cooked meal on the table, I rushed to my parents to visit. In the last few months my parents have continuously mentioned a new Vietnamese restaurant they had been visiting regularly, and once again it was brought up over this dinner we were having. I asked if it was new, I assumed if there was this good a place my dad would have already brought me there when I was younger, but he said no, it had been there for a long time, he had just never paid it much attention until now. I was curious and mentioned he should take me there next time I visit.

The next day my commute home was struck with severe delays on my train, and I remembered that this restaurant was within a stone's throw of the Millbrae station where I was about to miss my connecting train. With 40 minutes to whittle away, I walked over to the restaurant in question, La Petite Camille.

Inconspicuous and with a weathered out sign in front, La Petite was packed to the brim, in the dim evening light the windows were the only ones on that block illuminated with activity. I walked in and asked for a table of one, and the waiter didn't quite seem to understand. At first I thought it may have been a language barrier, while I can speak Mandarin the waiter spoke a different dialect of Chinese I was very unfamiliar with. As this was a Vietnamese restaurant, the spoken Chinese was confusing, but I remembered reading somewhere that in South China there's a large immigrant population of Vietnamese.... Or maybe it was the other way around in North Vietnam... The owner took over and handled my table, but as soon as I sat down, I realized the waiter's confusion wasn't due to a language barrier, but rather with my request for a table of one. I looked around and amidst tables of families, couples and friends I was the only seated alone.

This being my first time at the restaurant, I decided to order a safe bet and got the beef pho. The other menu items looked like this restaurant's specialty, DIY spring rolls and rice vermicelli noodle salads. I'll message my dad in a few weeks and suggest catching up over dinner here to explore what everyone else seems to be ordering. The toppings of basil, jalapeƱo and bean sprouts arrived and shortly after so did my bowl of pho. It was fresh, and the broth was dark and rich, unlike many of the chain pho restaurants in the area which opt to use lighter, clarified stocks. The broth was the star of the meal, holding that earthy heavy savoriness of a long thought over preparation, and steeped over several hours with a multitude of meats and vegetables to aid in the refinement of flavor. I was sweating, and I had only had a sip of soup so far. I dug into the cuts of beef, which had become deeply entangled with the noodles. They were tender enough to not require too much chewing, but I wanted that classic hoisin and sriracha sauce combo for dipping. I realized then that my table didn't have any of the classic pho accouterment, but then again this was not a pho restaurant, I was likely the only person dumb enough to have ordered pho. The bowl was deeply satisfying, and I was exhausted from the endeavor.

While basking in the delight of having finished the pho, I looked immediately across form my table, and there was a mirror cut to the dimensions of the wall between the door (immediately to my left) and the windows (trapezoidal in shape). I looked bent out of shape. Glancing around, one could tell the space clearly used to be an old American style diner, replete with flat top grill in back and funky chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It seems the diner hadn't truly left the place. While the meals are an ocean apart, the families and friends who have been shuffling in and out, greeting each other in loud hellos, the familiarity everyone had with the place would have made the previous owners proud. If someone were to write a whistle stop good eats tour of CalTrain, this would surely rank for the best around Millbrae station.

I got up to pay and moved my bags quickly out of the table. The waiters swooped in to clear the way for eager customers. I walked out to a cloud of smoke coming from an older man waiting for his family to arrive. A palm tree filtered the last daylight into my eyes as I left for my train.