Reporter, huh?" Fred said, looking entirely uninterested. "Like, you work for the newspaper?"
"Yeah," I said, looking down at the Vesuvius of cigarette butts in the ashtray, the half-eaten cheeseburger and cold coffee in front of me, thinking how working was the last thing I was doing. "Something like that."
"You write about the president and, what? The news and things?"
"Not really," I said. "I write about food. Restaurants."
Fred blinked. A big man in a battered Carhartt and boots worn down to the steel in the toe, Fred (which wasn't really his name, but he looked like a Fred) worked construction. We'd already talked about his job. Now we were on to mine, with him sitting across from me, hunched over his chicken-fried steak at one of the lonely-heart tables at the Breakfast King. I'm always hoping for some young heiress to flop into that seat, an interesting girl carrying a battered leather satchel full of gin and her inheritance, but no luck yet. Instead, I had Fred.
"Food," Fred said around his moustache and a mouthful of chicken-fried steak. "So, what? You go to restaurants, and then you write about them?"
I smiled thinly and lit a fresh cigarette off the stump of the one in my fingers. "Yup," I said. "Every week."
I had retreated to the Breakfast King to fight an as-yet-undecided battle with my own peristaltic reflex, waiting for my body to decide whether it was going to be able to stomach a very unusual soup I'd just tried at a lunch buffet across town. While my tummy was making up its mind, Fred was my distraction; the cheeseburger and coffee were a pathetic attempt to tamp down my first lunch with a second. I felt awful. I felt like I'd swallowed a gallon of blood and butterflies.
And it wasn't because there'd been anything really wrong with the soup. I've been poisoned plenty in this line of work, both minorly and majorly. I know exactly what that feels like, and this wasn't that. This was more like something wrong with me, something that had resulted in this psychosomatic reaction to a vegetable tom kha soup that had my guts flip-flopping and my vital machinery trying to squirm right out of my skin.
I'd run afoul of the soup on my third turn through Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai (my second visit in three days). And one reason I liked the place so much was that I often had no idea of what I was about to put in my mouth -- I only knew that, as the name promises, it would be yummy, yummy, tasty and Thai. As a matter of fact, with the exception of a workhorse pad thai -- offered, I suspect, only because a Thai restaurant without pad thai would be like a Chinese restaurant without sesame chicken, the fallback choice of the cowardly and unadventurous -- nothing off the menu tasted like what I expected after years of eating great Thai food and terrible Thai food and wholly mediocre Thai food across the country. The huge shu mai dumplings were hand-rolled to order, dappled with candied garlic and set swimming in a puddle of salty soy sauce. The chicken massaman curry with potatoes was prepared smooth, sugary-hot and properly thick -- not watery like gasoline soup, not gummy or pointlessly spicy like a spoonful of plain vanilla Sterno.
At Yummy Yummy, which is owned and run by Pim Fitt, a native of Bangkok who spent twenty years traveling Thailand as a teacher before emigrating to the United States in 1996, I was getting close to the flavors and preparations of a true Thai cuisine.
Pim's kitchen made dishes I'd never heard of, like som tom -- a slaw of bittersweet green papaya, garlic, whole grape tomatoes, green onions, dried shrimp and lime juice tossed together into a beautiful, summery mess -- and ones I'd never tried before, like lad na, which mixed stir-fried, ribbony rice noodles, green chard, meat and a thin, cool gravy. There were battered and deep-fried whole spinach leaves, fantastic when dipped in sweet peanut sauce (and soon to be a feature on the new Applebee's "Tastes of Indochina" appetizer menu, right alongside the water-buffalo Riblets and Extreme Galangal Poppers). In all my culinary explorations, the only disappointment had been terribly botched Thai-spiced fish cakes that looked like a handful of burnt fish McNuggets and tasted like erasers soaked in vinegar and dirty aquarium water.
Just sitting in the lonely dining room could be an adventure. Pim took over this eternally failing space next to the Dunes Motel on East Colfax not quite two years ago, and there was always something to see -- even if it wasn't customers. Old ladies from the kitchen would gather around the TV in the back, watching Asian soap operas or listening to warbly love songs coming from halfway around the world. And Pim was always around, ready to answer questions, quick to apologize for how long things were taking even if my extra order of shu mai or to-go snow rolls (bean thread noodles with shrimp, mint and cucumber wrapped in sticky rice paper) only had me waiting an extra five minutes.
On my third visit, I'd gone for the lunch buffet, loading my plate with sticky rice from the steamer, green chicken curry, panang beef, something green and garlicky that was maybe stewed bok choy with soft shoots of something that was maybe lemongrass, and the tom kha, which looked so good under the harsh incandescent lights, full and fresh and gleaming silky yellow-white in its aluminum vat. I took a pho spoon from the sideboard, a pair of chopsticks, and went back to my table by a wall covered in impossibly bright and cheerful Day-Glo pictures of every dish on the menu. I had a pot of tea waiting for me, and ice water in a yellow plastic cup like the kind grandmas keep in the back of their cupboards, having gotten four of them free with a tank of gas at the Esso station down the street back in 1957.
On the buffet, a big sign written in oddly grammatical English had urged me to "Take all you care to eat, but please eat all that you take." As quiet as Yummy Yummy can be, I had the feeling this wasn't just about politeness, but a real food-cost issue. The kitchen wanted to be generous, wanted to offer heaping trays of everything, made fresh every day. And Pim, I'm sure, didn't want anyone going away hungry. But at the same time, Yummy Yummy had to be careful, because every plate left with food still on it was money lost. Waste -- and waste kills kitchens.
I was staring at the sign as I ate, watching the ladies from the back restock the hotel pan of pad thai and glance at the old TV on their way back into the kitchen. On the screen, an Asian heartthrob was singing against a pulsing, inky backdrop like something out of a Jefferson Airplane reunion tour. I wanted to make sure I cleaned my plate because it was courteous and respectful and because there was only one other person in the dining room with me, and all he had was one mountainous dish piled with pad thai that he was never going to finish. So I shoveled excellent green curry chicken into my mouth, snapped bits of beef panang up with my sticks. The green stuff that might've been bok choy with what might've been lemongrass was good, a riot of salt and garlic and a little like East Coast Italian greens and beans, only without the beans and with a lemon twist.
Finally, all I had left was the tom kha, the last stop on my tour of Pim's culinary Thailand. It smelled soupy-sweet and salty -- a little like coconut sugar, a little like my mom's cream of chicken, a little like sweat and boiled milk. Distracted by the TV, I dipped a spoon into the soup and stirred it up. There were carrots, I think, and stalks of something woody, some hollow yellow tubular veggies, bias-cut and the color of wax beans, mushroom caps that looked like bobbing thumbs. I scooped up a bit of everything, blew on the spoonful, then politely tipped its contents back into my mouth so that I wouldn't slurp.
"So this is what you get paid for?" Fred asked, still talking about my job. "Just to eat dinner?"
"And to write about it," I said.
"Shit," he laughed. "Nice work if you can get it, huh?"
"If you say so."
The difference between a rookie eater and a pro is that a pro won't spit even when every instinct screams that he must. Instead, a split-second mental process snaps the pro's mouth shut and has his brain wondering, My goodness, how unusual! I wonder if I'm going to die? Meanwhile, the rookie is choking and making a mess of the tablecloth.
I've eaten field mouse and didn't spit because field mouse isn't bad, and besides, when you pick up one of the splayed little buggers on a stick, you know you're in for an unusual taste treat. Snake and gator are positively pedestrian. And deer penis? Well, that was in a cassoulet, and I'd been able to prepare myself.
But this soup came out of nowhere. The unidentifiable vegetables alternately squished and crunched; the mushroom cap tasted like peat moss and old meat. The sweetness of the coconut milk only made things worse: It was like drinking a glass of warm cream with a bloody lip, like some terrible folk remedy for curing liver fluke or the vapors. I swallowed fast and looked away, stared at the pretty pictures on the wall through tearing eyes, just thinking over and over and over, Don't throw up; please don't fucking throw up.
I had the strangest sensation as this nauseatingly unusual mix of flavors and textures leaked its way down the back of my throat. Rationally, in the same way that there's nothing wrong with castor oil or any other chemical emetic, I knew there was nothing wrong with the soup. Rationally, I knew it wasn't going to kill me, so I took deep panting breaths, downed my tea like a shot.
And then I tried it again.
Which was just plain stupid, I admit. But I wanted to do like the sign said -- I wanted to eat all I'd taken -- and besides, I couldn't really believe the soup had tasted that bad.
It had. By now my body was in a full biological panic. Although outwardly I was every inch the gentleman -- paying my bill, leaving my tip, thanking the ladies on my way out -- by the time I got to my car, I wanted to curl up like a dog in the back seat and die.
"Man," Fred said. "Getting paid to eat. That's something."
An hour before, I was thinking that I would never be able to taste coconut milk again, never have a mushroom, never have a lime. But now, with the battle almost won, I was remembering this dessert I'd had at Yummy Yummy two days before: warm, soft bananas in crisp egg-roll wrappers dusted with powdered sugar and served with a side of buttery, rich and sweet homemade coconut-milk ice cream. It sounded good. Despite my stupid sick tummy, I was already thinking of stopping at Yummy Yummy on my way home for more. I was thinking of my perfect epitaph: He took all that he cared to eat and ate everything he took.
Across from me, Fred was cutting off another big chunk of chicken-fried steak and straining the gravy through his moustache. "You must have one of the best jobs in the world, huh?"
I nodded, smiling over the rim of my coffee mug while I went for yet another cigarette. "Yeah," I said, feeling better, almost normal. "I do. Most of the time, I do."
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