Under the blue awning

Off the Beat

A plate is thrown down on the table.

Cut limes, pale bean sprouts, a mass of basil is draped over chilled cilantro, all nestled under chopped green peppers and mint leaves — a wild bush of herbs, shades of green, slightly wet. The waiter hustles away.

I am listening to the rhythm of her Vietnamese — sometimes fast, with high and low pitch, quick tempo and light pauses – all intonations to dictate her voice.

Momma took me to a Vietnamese restaurant in Orange County, a favorite restaurant down south with a name I don’t know well. It’s one of about a hundred in an area predominantly Southeast Asian, not too far from where she first landed in 1975.

She tells me families are big in Vietnam. So meal time turns into something incredible, where brothers and sisters, parents and relatives share a large meal for dinner. It’s not simple food, requiring a day’s preparation, increasingly absent in modern families. But it’s stimulating.

However, being Vietnamese escapes my identity often, in an Americanized world where cultures blend and communities grow increasingly apart.

I don’t speak Vietnamese; I was too stubborn to learn. All I know is the food, the food her family has eaten, the food her mother had made over and over since leaving Vietnam. And decades before that.

So I find eating an experience with my mom.

The restaurant has this distinctive blue awning, with rail posts outside and a narrow parking lot.

Yet, the service is impersonal. The food is swiftly served; patrons often hang their head, immersed in their own selection.

And as I relocate my napkin to my lap – the meal requires such procedures – she orders Vietnamese coffee for us, a maddening concoction of caffeine and condensed milk. I sit there like a child, her child, and she smiles.

So she tells the young waiter our order, his forearms strained and vascular, fingers nimbly gliding over the order pad. And he’s off again.

Per my translator, Mom, the spring rolls, Banh Cuon, fly in from the kitchen, opaque rice paper squeezing in pickled julienned carrots and delicate shrimp, and vermicelli noodles like threads of yarn.

For me and Mom, Vietnamese cuisine is a dining pleasure, for the palate and for memories, an excursion to the north, and south, the Central coast and the valleys so familiar to mumsy.

There is a beauty in Vietnamese dining, Mom says, that is lost between generations. Many dishes are complicated and time consuming to create. Sometimes not all the right ingredients are found.

Her household placed primary emphasis on her mother, the master cook, a very traditional family in Vietnam. The boys did no work at home. She still resents that.

But she never got to practice cooking. Too many siblings, not enough time, expensive ingredients, difficult recipes. So she stood back and watched.

By now, it’s noisy in here, the restaurant nearing maximum capacity, tables filling, and the kitchen door flapping open like a bar from the wild west.

Bare handed, the waiter puts down the bowls of bun bo hue – medium for her and large for me. It’s a central Vietnamese dish from the city of Hue with shrimp paste, lemongrass, beef bones and dried chilies that spike the broth.“Hot!”

With a sip of the broth, my chest palpitates, my heart protrudes, my nose drips. Wide eyes notice little more acute details, like the dancing gleam of spiced broth, the silky, pungent note from fermented fish sauce, the crunch of raw steak, brisket, flank, tendon, tripe, pork hock.

The coffee is absurdly strong.

We snap bean sprouts, squeeze lime quarters, pull the mint from stems and level out hoisin sauce with sriracha in our sauce plate.

The kitchen is a continuous motor, humming with the clank of sauce pans, the pouring of broth, the swish of orders being taken and delivered.

The food is light and refreshing, synthesizing the complexity of flavors within the simplicity of such ingredients in a generous presentation. Normally three courses: a salty, a sweet, and a vegetable dish.

But today we finish the food, only two courses out of three, knowing we are here more for each other’s company than just food.

She often remembers her own mother through her likes and dislikes, the peculiarities and particular fancies, periodically exclaiming that the qualities aren’t the same and the flavor isn’t just right. But that’s what I like, knowing that someday I will miss her and her cooking just like she does with her mom.

When the Bun Bo Hue is done, I become sleepy, my stomach holding a pint of broth and too many noodles. She pays the bill and we stand up.

As we leave, I look over our table and marvel at the spectacle, a scene of disassembled leaves, broken sprouts, and a few noodles left. I can only imagine our next lunch.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion columnists have been selected.

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