Most of my friends are foodies. Last night, I was reminded why this is such a good thing.
Ashleigh works in my office. Her relatives are third-generation Chinese immigrants who moved east from northern California to the DDT- and dust-covered farmland of the Mississippi Delta. She’s got the melodic lilt of a Cleveland (Mississippi) country girl, but the taste buds (and politics) of a Left Coast aesthete. When I went on vacation to San Francisco in May 2002, I asked her what produce would be in season around that time. “Don’t forget to stop by See’s Candies,” she said, “and bring back a tin for me.” When I went to Seattle last October, I asked her about the local cuisine—“Get Thai and dim sum, you ninny, and for god’s sake don’t forget the seafood.” When my visiting friends ask what’s good in Jackson, I ask Ashleigh for tips before replying.
Somehow, she’s svelte. I don’t understand this.
Anyway, yesterday morning, an email blipped on my computer screen. “Walter, a few of us are going to Saigon after work for dinner. Wanna come?” This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds—Saigon is a Vietnamese restaurant off Lakeland Drive, one of the last enclaves of individualized cuisines before heading out into the suburban wilds of Flowood. I had been there once before, two years ago, and eaten a disappointingly murky noodle soup with rubbery tripe. (Ashleigh scowled at me the next day: “Oh, Walter, you know what tripe is, right?”) Still, if she was recommending the restaurant, I would be a fool to turn her down.
So, a small cadre of my fellow workers drove over to Saigon. The atmosphere leaves much to be desired. It looks like the fast-food restaurant that it used to be, though the restaurateurs—ex-Californians themselves—at least stocked the floor with real tables and chairs instead of booths. Ashleigh knew the waitress, her seven-year-old daughter, and the grandmother cleaning up behind us. She asked how the girl was liking first grade, and made recommendations for everyone. “Get spring rolls,” she said.
As an appetizer, I ordered spring rolls, which turned out to be wrapped in a wonderfully spongy, unfried rice dough, and filled with fresh lettuce, slender cuts of shrimp, rice, and crisp sprouts, with a creamy, slightly spicy peanut sauce for dipping. My plum soda mixed salty and sweet perfectly, and I sucked tart lemon pulp through my straw. Suddenly, the décor looked better, somehow. After all, Saigon is a family-run, family-oriented joint—my friend Pete brought his wife and three-year-old girl along—and the garish colors seemed appropriate now. A good peanut sauce will do that to me.
I smelled my main course before I saw it. I got a chicken and shrimp hotpot, which sounds roughly like what it is. Tender chicken slices and shrimp are nestled into a bed of rice, fish sauce, peanut sauce and oil, and various bean sprouts and spices. All of it is cooked in a clay pot that also serves as your plate. Pickled cucumbers and cabbage came on the side, as does a broth soup sprinkled with chives and smelling of black licorice and mint.
I should have been polite, and let people share. But it was too good to let go, and I didn’t see anyone offering their food, either.
We were too stuffed to try dessert, though that didn’t stop Ashleigh from thinking about it. “Up in Madison [a suburb of Jackson], there’s a place called the Donut Palace,” she said. “You really should make a pilgrimage there, and try to get there early.” Soon, we were all recounting our favorite desserts, from that chocolate-covered, pecan-sprinkled donut hole Harriet had eaten once in Tennessee, to those tender ribs Pete had as a kid in Alabama. The best thing about great meals is that they remind you of other great meals, and make you hungry for conversation, even if your stomach is full. Just try not to think of tripe.