"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.