Friday, December 22, 2006

Early Christmas Present?

I just came back from a brisk walk, stockpiling coffee before our coming 4-day weekend (after Saturday, nothing will be open until Wednesday morning, at which point there'll be nothing in the shops because they won't have re-stocked yet), and on my way back up Friedrichstr., almost to Torstr., I saw that a new business had opened in a bad-luck location that's been a half-dozen things in the past few years. This one, though, might make it.

Its predecessor was a store called Come In, which sold, uh, jewelry and stuff, just another un-thought-out business waiting to get pounded into the ground, which happened in due time. The new joint has just as cute a name: Yum Mee. Irritating as that is, it both advertises what's for sale and shows off the horrid Orientalism which holds forth here in those two words. However, what it sells (in part) could be a godsend to the 'hood: bánh mi. Half the menu is regular baguette sandwiches, the other half a somewhat timid approach to this classic Vietnamese snack.

My own introduction to bánh mi came in Honolulu, whence I'd gone to do a story on Hawaiian music, which is a much harder assignment than you'd think. Still, I had a motivated researcher in the person of my friend Margaret, who'd moved there with her new husband, Rollo Banks, one of America's leading tattoo artists. (Please note this was before every idiot teenager in the world had a tattoo. Rollo had inherited the designs of Sailor Jerry, and was still poking them out at China Sea Tattoo on Army Street in Honolulu's Chinatown.) The day I'd arrived in Honolulu, I'd done something very smart: not fought the jetlag. This was Margaret's idea: "If you wake up at 6 and go to bed at 10, you'll be keeping local time, and you'll never see the tourists." She was right.

One morning, then, Rollo offered to take me on a tour of Chinatown at 6 in the morning, and I of course jumped at the opportunity. They tell tourists Chinatown is dangerous, and if you're asked, you should echo that opinion. It's not, of course, true, but Chinatown is sleazy -- or it was back in 1990. at any rate. Rollo was an inspired guide to the sleaze, too; we went to a dime-a-dance place where there was a live orchestra of Filipinos. The drummer -- and I can swear to this, having stood right next to him -- was asleep, keeping perfect time (all he needed to do was whack the snare), and picking a scab on his neck in his sleep. On the periphery of the dance-floor were little booths where the dance-hall girls -- Okinawans, Rollo said -- gave blow-jobs for five bucks. There was an antique shop (and why was this open at 6am?) where I bet someone who knew his Chinese or Japanese stuff might well uncover a bargain: it looked like the stock hadn't been added to since about 1920. Various closed bars were passed and their legends commented upon, and then we went to the wholesale fish market, where multi-ton tuna were being wheeled in straight off the boat while the sushi chefs from the best hotels in the state swarmed over them bidding on the choicest bits. Outside the fish market was a fruit and vegetable market, and Rollo bought a perfectly ripe mango, whereupon he pulled out his knife, stabbed it, and started carving it with careful in-and-out motions. He withdrew the knife, wiped the blade on his jeans and popped the mango open, its flesh falling apart into discrete bite-sized chunks, much to the admiration of the young Vietnamese woman who'd sold it to him. "I learned that trick from a teenaged whore in Bangkok," he said, and she turned a very unusual color.

We ended the tour in a Vietnamese coffee-shop whose name I carefully wrote down, only to discover later that the two words meant "coffee shop" in Vietnamese. And there, for breakfast, I had a paté, shredded daikon, shredded green chile, homemade mayonnaise, cilantro, shredded carrot and lettuce bánh mi on a perfect baguette, with two cups of that rocket-fuel Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk to wake me up. By the time we got back to Army Street, there was a line in front of China Sea that led around the block. "Oh, hell," Rollo sighed. "Fleet's in."

Anyway, with that kind of intro to bánh mi, no wonder I've been waiting for them to show up here. I doubt Yum Mee will be that good, but I'm also intending to head down there tomorrow at lunchtime.


Anonymous said...

do you think the five dollar specialties might also be available?

Ed Ward said...

That'd be under dance-halls, not snacks. Not my area of expertise, but off the top of my head, I'd say yeah, but more expensive. Also: don't expect Okinawans.

Olaf said...

Man, I just had to click on the Wikipedia link for Banh mi before I'd eaten lunch. Now the snow is foggin' down and I don't dare venture out onto the streets to play dodge-em with the tourists from Phoenix. Not that we have a Vietnamese place here, but something hot and fresh would be better than what I am going to have to eat for lunch now. Damn. Thanks for the post, though. Next time I get to my favorite Pho joint, I'll have to ask about this.

Unknown said...

OK, I'm reading and writing this a block from Honolulu Chinatown, at a magnificent pho place. yesterday had malaysian in the market. feels perfectly safe and reminds me more of, say, kuala lumpur than any american town I can think of offhand. will look for some banh mi for lunch later today. if you can recall more details of that coffee shop, do tell! mahalo.

Ed Ward said...

You can often get pre-made bánh mi in Vietnamese delis and grocery stores, over in the refrigerated section, Olaf.

And Brett, what you'd be looking for would be a place that isn't quite a restaurant (ie, no dinner-style courses), might serve phô, and definitely would have the various rice-paper dishes (ie, summer rolls, etc).

Sorry to hear Chinatown isn't sleazy. Or, wait: you could have meant saft but sleazy. Which would be pretty much what I saw. Although with some of those bars, I'd say safety diminishes during business hours.