Were it not for the social distancing that came with the dreaded plague, I’d still be in my official Coffee Headquarters (HQ) every day, pulling up a chair at a random table or meeting someone.
Instead of looking forward to socializing, we became accustomed to minimizing it, thus I began my pursuit of cafés with more space paired with less customers; those grubby, dark, less-frequented hideouts.
A little hole in the wall caught my eye while on rounds of the neighbourhood, curiosity mounting each time until I could resist no longer.
It’s a café/banh mi joint, a veritable dump – gloomy on the inside with worn benches, ugly scratched up tables, walls adorned with bizarre old stuffed animals that look as if they were mounted decades ago.
If you want to avoid crowds and congestion, it’s the place to go, and, as I’ve discovered, it’s damn entertaining in the process, a cultural Mecca in Da Lat, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam.
The café itself has a trickle of customers, while the nuoc mia (sugar cane) squisher machine thingy is going all the time, plus there’s a roaring take away banh mi trade.
The boss Hoa – in my ongoing assault on the Vietnamese language in general and personal pronouns in particular, I just call her ‘Mom’ – is a blur, flying in all directions, never standing still, often starting at 6:00 am or before, and going well into the evening.
I’ve never seen her sit down – always standing or squatting to eat, prepare food, or scream into the phone, then right back at work.
Hoa is delicate, feminine in her demeanour, but when she gets on that phone all hell breaks loose. I told her to disconnect and continue talking without technological assistance since no doubt she can be heard a block away, but she just gave me a blank stare and carried on hollering.
It took me a while, but I learned there’s a lot more to a banh mi sandwich than some meat and pickled vegetables tossed in a loaf.
Hoa makes nearly all ingredients by hand; I’ve watched her do it.
She cracks about three dozen eggs, separates yolks from whites, and tosses the yolks into a cake mixer with a bunch of oil and whips them for exactly 18 minutes, creating a divine butter, rich with a tinge of sweetness.
|Homemade all the way
She just makes small batches of each, enough for a couple of days, because it’s all about the freshness.
She trims and slices pork (probably breeds the pigs in the backyard and slaughters them too), marinates it in her special potion for hours, then hauls the steel bowl down to the corner so she can trade gossip with her buddies.
Of course Hoa cleans, trims, and prepares the cilantro, basil, chilis, carrots, and cucumbers for her banh mi, captures the gunk that drizzles off the grill for the sauce she smears on the finished product, makes a wicked pate, spicy chili sauce from crushed peppers, and xiu mai (meatballs).
The only things she doesn’t make herself (which she confided to me under her breath one day) are cha lua (local-style ham) and melt-in-your-mouth shredded pork and chicken.
She’s tried to get her daughters involved, but no dice, she can barely herd them into the kitchen to feign involvement in the preparation of family meals.
They’re aloof, gangling, spindly, at that awkward age, so there’s constant turmoil which I can hear all the way out front:
“Put that next layer on quickly before it gets soggy!”
“Smush up the corn more!”
“This dish needs more nuoc mam (fish sauce)! Pathetic!”
“You’ve forgotten most of what I taught you!” (That zinger touched a nerve.)
Inside the café, there’s crap all over the place, piled along the walls and towards the rear; forgotten, broken things that nobody dares jettison.
Further on, the kitchen itself resembles the scene of a violent crime, the only thing missing is blood smeared on the walls and body parts lying around.
There is counter space, but it’s occupied by half-eaten bowls of noodles, various implements and dirty pots, so plastic bags of fresh meat and vegetables are relegated to the kitchen floor, awaiting preparation.
The work space is moot because, given the option of that kitchen or a fancy, fully-equipped arrangement, the average Vietnamese would still slap down a chopping board on the floor, grab a cleaver, squat, and start hacking away.
There isn’t the slightest attempt at a professional atmosphere – a vague distinction between what is business versus intimate family life. The scene is natural, unpretentious, unscripted, straight from the heart:
Customer saunters up to the stand: “Two banh mi please.”
Hoa: “Everything on them?”
Customer: “One with extra chilis.”
Hoa: “GET OUT OF THE TOILET, YOU’LL BE LATE FOR SCHOOL!”
Customer: “Other one with op la (fried egg).”
Hoa: “THE CAT POOPED OUT BACK! CLEAN IT UP BEFORE YOU GO!”
Customer: “And two ca phe den (black ice coffee) to go.”
Hoa: “Coming right up, sir. YOU KIDS! SAME OLD CRAP EVERY DAY!”
|Hovering over the goodies
Right in the midst of it all, random people from around the corner (extended family, no doubt) saunter by and squeeze through the customers, helping themselves to food items they ran short of or just to scarf down a snack.
The toilet exudes a heavenly aroma incongruous with the rest of the operation, thanks to the variety of feminine lotions, soaps, and products. The corners of the ceiling are plugged with clumps of toilet paper and folded hunks of cardboard, battle scars from incidents with neighbouring peeping Toms.
I’m practically rolling with laughter in my corner, riveted on the scene, trying to remain as inconspicuous and stoic as possible despite being the only foreigner to enter the place in recorded history, or at least in a very long time.
The coffee is symbolic of how what lies beneath the surface counts at Hoa’s joint, not the presentation, packaging, or bells and whistles. I like my coffee warm, so the shot-sized glass is served dunked in a scary-looking old plastic cup of hot water, steel filter atop the glass.
It takes fifteen minutes for the beans to seep through the filter into the shot glass, spiked with a hint of cocoa, well worth the wait. The accompanying tea, the alkaline to counter the acidic coffee, is rich, hot, and laced with ginger.
There are no cutting corners at Hoa’s place.
|What’s inside counts
When I have an afternoon coffee session, it all comes to a crescendo when Soup Man shows up.
His cart is huge, laden with everything he needs, stuffed to the absolute hilt – after all it’s his entire kitchen and dining room – so maneuvering it from the street up onto the curb and into its resting place is a Herculean task.
He drives up on his motorbike, unbolts, releases, and sets down the cart, then fetches a broken sidewalk tile (which he carefully stashes away after use), places it in precisely the right position, transforming it into a makeshift ramp so the front right wheel of his rig can mount the curb.
Then, with just the right technique (there should be an Olympic event for this), he pushes the cart a few steps, gaining momentum until he reaches just the ideal speed when that front right wheel hits the tile.
|Heart in throat
The cart must not move so quickly as to be potentially dangerous, nor so slow that it can’t make it up and over the curb. That contraption must weigh a ton, so should it ever careen out of control there would be soup, noodles, and sprouts flying in all directions down the street.
For a fleeting instant, the entire load teeters at a precarious angle when the cart mounts the curb – my heart goes up into my throat no matter how many times I witness that moment of truth – risking all the preparation, not to mention a day’s takings.
Sure enough, the right wheel thuds onto the sidewalk followed by the left, the whole operation coming to a crescendo when all four wheels touch down with a pronounced BANG.
I practically collapse on the table in relief – Soup Man lives another day!
He just laughs at me, shrugging it off, he could probably pull off that stunt before brushing his teeth in the morning.
This plague continues to be a gold-plated pain in the neck, but, oddly, the longer it drags on, the more we enjoy the little pleasures – the wicked coffee, ginger tea, Hoa’s epic banh mi sandwich, and Soup Man and his cart.