It's one o'clock in the morning and I'm still eating crab. I've been eating crab since my wife went to bed more than an hour ago, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, watching cartoons with the drifty stare of an acid casualty, surrounded by the wreckage of sixty minutes of constant consumption -- plates, forks, shells, wadded napkins, two cans of Coke, takeout styros with the tops torn off, little plastic cups of clear, sour-sweet nuoc mam speckled with flakes of red chile. There's a stain on the carpet where I fumbled a piece of crab, the tarry black sauce drooling into the nap. It's going to be there forever, that stain, impossible to clean. I brushed off the carpet fuzz as well as I could and ate the crab anyway. I'm not wasting a bite.
I'm high -- boggle-eyed, adrift, brain cut loose at the stem and floating, its vital machinery caramelized. I've switched off most of the lights, closed the blinds in the living room -- not that it's really necessary in my anti-Desperate Housewives neighborhood, where they roll up the sidewalks at nine and nobody cares what the hell I do to amuse myself after dark. But it isn't the hippie lettuce. Not tonight. It's the crab. It's the meditative focus required to pull every bit of meat from the rough-chopped Dungeness shells, the willful dissolution of the self necessary to really get into it -- to not care about the carpet, the sauce smeared all the way up to my wrists and over my chin, the colossal mess I'm making, hunched over the styros like a penitent in an old T-shirt and blue jeans, my whole world reduced to just this crab leg, this sauce and the rainbow glow of the TV.
Eating crab alone. It's better then sparking a bowl full of brown city dirtweed and then sacking out on the couch with Twinkies, better than a self-inflicted opium coma. I'm getting a little old for blowing joints on a school night anyhow, but this -- cua rang muoi, sautéed hard-shells, broken and piled like some terrible crustacean car wreck, swimming in a buttery, spicy-sweet sauce that tastes of reduced balsamic vinegar but isn't, that smells like port wine jelly but isn't -- this is my new drug of choice.
And I know now that you have to eat the crabs alone, at home -- maybe not in the dark or wrapped up in some culinary Heart of Darkness trip like this, but certainly out of public view. What you want is privacy. What you want is the personal freedom to get all caveman on the crabs without embarrassing yourself, to pull the shells apart with your fingers, suck the meat out of the legs and spit out the cartilage, to eat without manners.
I'd realized this a few hours earlier, while sitting in the little dining room at Kim Ba -- sitting there with my entree staring at me.
"You're not eating," Laura said, which wasn't entirely true. I'd eaten plenty: goi cuon -- spring rolls wrapped in thick rice paper and dipped in a chunky black-bean and peanut sauce; a weird five-spice beef-and-veggie concoction stuffed in grape leaves like a Vietnamese dolma; addictive shrimp wrapped in the same beef, then grilled with a thick slice of onion in the center. I'd had some of Laura's chicken, done in a blazing hot sauce fired with a spicy bean paste that gave a short, sharp kick of heat like licking Sterno, then faded into an earthy, smoky flavor suggestive of Mexican adobo. Spooned out over glutinous rice, the big chunks of tender white meat were wonderful.
Everything about our meal had been wonderful (even if the spring rolls were a little dry). Kim Ba is among Denver's oldest Vietnamese restaurants, a shirttail relative of more famous spots on South Federal, holding down this near-invisible space in a ghost-town strip mall for nearly twenty years. In that time, its menu has been perfected into a cornucopia of ultra-traditional flavors, reflecting in proper ratio the variety of ethnic influences that have nibbled away at the edges of Vietnamese cuisine for centuries without ever becoming fused to its central canon. The green-lip mussels come in a Thai coconut curry sauce. The thit heo kho tieu -- pork cooked in a spicy black-pepper sauce -- reminds me of the pork sandwiches I used to eat with a couple of Laotian dishwashers who worked with me at an Italian restaurant back in New York, brothers who never left the house without their mother packing them a bag lunch better than anything we served. Bo xao dam is beef sautéed in a wine-and-vinegar sauce: a little French, a little Chinese. The vit xao xa ot, duck sautéed with lemongrass, is more French than anything, even in the way it's cut. The French are the only cooks who've managed to mix comfortably with Vietnamese tradition and have any real effect on the country's cuisine.
But Laura was right. I wasn't eating my own dinner. I'd ordered ca chien xa ot -- marinated butterfish, coated with a grassy skin of pressed spices and pan-fried dark brown. It was a whole fish, presented with head and tail intact, looking a lot like the sunfish and crappies I used to catch when I would go fishing with my dad. I'd taken only one small bite, peeling back the skin near the head and forking out a piece of the best meat, north of the gill, south of the eye.
"It's looking at me," I told her, and she tilted her head as if I'd suddenly started speaking Cantonese.
"So? You love that," she said, stabbing another piece of chicken and feeding it to me across the table. "You always order whole fish and rat testicles and all that weird stuff. What's the problem? Is it not good?"
It was excellent -- and, oddly, that was the problem. There was something about the fish -- something about the way it had been cooked a little longer than necessary, blackening the fins and toughening the meat; something about the ease of its prep and presentation with the simple marinade and spice rub, no sauce, no garnish -- that reminded me of campfires and home-cooked meals in a home that was not my own. Reminded me of this Chinese place where I'd worked when I was just a kid, seventeen or eighteen, running the bar in a clip-on bow tie and white tuxedo shirt and playing Go with the regulars when business was slow. Most of the employees at the joint were illegals -- Chinese, Vietnamese and Lao -- working for tips, no paychecks, in a strange, restaurant-world indentured servitude. One owner was Chinese, one was Japanese. The delivery driver and I were the only round-eyes in the place. And the best perk of working there (in addition to the free booze and extra cash I pulled down on the side making book on the boxing matches and horse races that the owners watched obsessively) was that everyone on staff ate for free. Meals were served family style at the bar, the cooks whipping up huge platters of whole fried fish, capelin, chicken legs and chiles over rice, salt-and-pepper shrimp with boiled eggs and some vicious rice-wine sauce that would get you drunk just smelling it. When the platters came out of the kitchen, everyone would descend at once in a mob, crowding around the food, fighting to get the best bits, the most meat, the most eggs.
There were no rules. No manners. We ate with chopsticks and with our fingers; ate out of our hands, sucking shrimp out of the shells, scooping up rice with pieces of browning lettuce and squeezing pieces of fish or chicken into the wraps. It was a rowdy good time, even if everyone made fun of me for my lack of skill with chopsticks (I learned fast) and my cultural inability to roll a proper rice ball with one hand without shaking grains all over the bar.
This enthusiastic enjoyment was the kind of gustatory treatment that Kim Ba's ca chien xa ot deserved. The sides of the fish had been slashed, the meat pulling away from the bones in long, flaky strips, ideal for eating with your hands. I wanted to rip into the flesh with my fingers rather than pick at it with my fork like a gentleman. I wanted to see if I remembered how to bounce a rice ball in my palm until it was just the right shape to fold in a leaf of lettuce with some fish and a little nuoc mam, then devour in two fast bites. This dish almost demanded to be eaten while squatting somewhere in front of a charcoal fire, pressed in shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers.
And that was not the dining room at Kim Ba. Although the space is far from formal, it's also far from primitive. Pretty, bright and comfortable with its wooden tables and booths, it was made happy and homey that evening by a little girl (owner Ba Forde's granddaughter, whose picture is plastered all over the wall by the register) in a blue dress and long, dark pigtails running around, greeting customers, peeking at everyone's dinners. I liked it there, had been well-treated and well-fed by the staff. But I was still just a guest, surrounded by other guests, and when I did finally eat my fish -- using a fork, stripping the thing down to its bones like a cat in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, laying the meat over rice, consuming everything but the eyes, tail and fins -- I knew that it would have tasted better at home, devoured when no one was looking, the meat warmed by my hand.
Which is why, when we were done with everything else, I asked for an order of cua rang muoi to go, wrapped up with all the extras and a side of white rice. Eating crab in public is even worse than trying to eat a whole fish. It's messier, clumsier -- self-consciousness always causing the best bits to get left inside the shells because no one wants to sit in a busy dining room for two hours, excavating a crab with his fingers, sucking on a whole leg like a cigarette.
But that's the best way to eat -- without shame -- and that's the way I am eating now: alone and stoned on crabmeat, ruining the carpet and having a great time. Nothing is going to make me hurry. Nothing is going to make me miss a bite of this fantastic food. I pick up the sticky remote and switch over to Barney Miller reruns, then dig my fingers into the rice, forming the ball, bouncing it along my palm until it becomes an egg that I wrap in a slip of browning lettuce with a little crab and dunk in the sauce at the bottom of the takeout container.
And still it crumbles, grains dropping into the sauce, crabmeat falling out. I've never been very good at that, but all it takes is practice. And I've got nothing but time.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.