Gathering Places

Pocket restaurants serve more than food

By R.E. Graswich

May 2019

The job of visiting every restaurant in Pocket and Greenhaven has produced a surprise.

While I expected diverse menus and a wide terrain of tastes and kitchen talent, I was not prepared to see local restaurants acting as community gathering spots and meeting halls. I expected to see people eat and run.

But quick meals and fast exits are not how every restaurant works in Pocket, especially during the afternoon. The food comes quickly, but customers are in no hurry to leave. In this way, our restaurants become unique alternatives to home and work. They become the “third place” identified by sociologists—places where people linger and experience their neighborhoods in neutral settings.

Cities have many third places. Almost anywhere will qualify—coffeeshops, cafés, bars, barbershops, even parks and libraries. Pocket has all of those, and people congregate in each. But as I wandered from Riverside Boulevard to Pocket Road in the quest to try every restaurant, I quickly found two places where congregation and community served as main courses on the menu.

First was Pho Bac Hoa Viet in the Riverlake Village center on Greenhaven Drive. The restaurant, whose name roughly translates to Vietnamese Flower, bills itself as Vietnamese and Chinese.

 

The menu features dozens of familiar Chinese dishes, from stir-fried Szechuan chicken to sweet and sour shrimp. But the soul of Pho Bac is northern-style Vietnamese cooking. The house specialty is pho bac, a northern soup broth with rice noodles, herbs and a butcher’s delight of beef, including flank, brisket, steak, tripe and tendon. The meats can be ordered separately or combined. For beef-averse customers, chicken is an option, but the soup loses richness and potency without a beefy contribution.

The Pho Bac style is neither fancy nor exotic—it’s a straightforward business, with professional staff and prompt, friendly service. A wall of mirrors is the most overwhelming design feature. Maybe the utilitarian environment explains why so many locals can be found easing their way through savory late lunches. People relax and chat and are in no rush to leave Pho Bac.

Another fine gathering spot is an old favorite of mine, Mountain Mike’s Pizza in the Promenade center on Rush River Drive. The site has gone through various pizza incarnations, and was vacant for about a decade. Completely remodeled, it has never looked nor tasted better.

Pizza is Pocket’s most popular food—five stores in the community sell various versions, and nearby neighborhoods offer more options—but Mountain Mike’s has worked to separate itself from the crowd by becoming a true gathering place. Five big-screen TVs create a convivial sports bar atmosphere, and a back room allows for parties. The restaurant works hard to help community organizations with four variations of fundraisers. All involve pizza and cash rebates to neighborhood groups.

“We are always brainstorming ideas to become a gathering place for the community,” manager Kimberley Krenke says. “This is a tightknit community, and people appreciate that we have fundraising opportunities for local schools, teams and churches.”

Like Pho Bac, Mountain Mike’s is a place where people linger, from families with small children to retirees seated alone watching TV. As for the pizza, I’ve yet to find a restaurant that consistently produces a better pepperoni pie. Not all Mountain Mike’s Pizzas are created equal, but from crust to sauce to cheese to topping, the Pocket location has mastered the magic of pepperoni pizza.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at reg@graswich.com.

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