Sunday, May 29, 2016

Desperately Seeking Fried Rice

Some days all you want to eat is simple food and you don’t want to cook it for yourself. Whether you call it diner food, bistro food, or street food, it’s all based on comfort. Why else would a grilled cheese sandwich prevail as a popular menu choice well into the 21st Century? Why is macaroni and cheese making a sudden resurgence in chicken and waffle joints across Seattle, if not the country?

When I lived in Thailand, an American friend and I would play a sad and masochistic little game called What Will You Eat First When You Go Back Home. Surrounded as we were by one of the world’s greatest cuisines that waited for us right outside any hour of any day, we had humble yearnings for our introductory meal. “Chicken fried steak,” was my friend’s usual answer while mine was “A meat loaf sandwich.”

Simple food can’t be confused with food that’s indifferently prepared. Nothing is more disgusting than a burnt grilled cheese sandwich or mac and cheese that’s soggy, except perhaps a meat loaf sandwich that’s been made with overly fat ground beef. Simple dishes are perhaps the most demanding of all food choices, because they rely on only a few ingredients without a lot of culinary flourishes.

Like most foreigners in Thailand, I found the gateway drugs to what became my lifelong street food addiction were dishes that were comforting, easy to find and to pronounce, and somehow familiar: wok-fried rice and noodles with chicken and soy sauce. Gradually my choices became more adventurous but these street food staples remained as two of my favorites. The stinging miasma of garlic and chile sizzling in a hot wok would lead me to the places that would give me what I wanted, where I knew I’d find my Bangkok version of simple, satisfying comfort.

It had been a long cold post-holiday season here in the Pacific Northwest and as we neared the end of January, I needed Thai fried rice. In Seattle, this isn’t an easy dish to find. The almost toxic cloud of garlic and chile frying at high heat would cause an entire restaurant to flee the premises and wok cookery isn’t just an art—it’s hard, hot, and painful work. Many other things are much easier to prepare than fried rice, and that’s what most people make: curries, grilled meat, and braised Sino-Thai dishes. I couldn’t blame them but nonetheless, in the same perverse and nostalgic spirit that prompted me to occasionally search in Bangkok for a hamburger that wasn’t a Big Mac, I wanted khao pat that would taste as though it had been made on a sidewalk in deepest Thonburi.

To find that, I needed to find a place with woks, and Thai Tom in the University district of Seattle came instantly to mind. The owner had found an old diner and kept it intact. Cooks worked behind the counter in full view of the customers who were seated nearby on stools. Woks were at center stage and when the place first opened, people crowded to the place, eager to watch the spectacle of open flames shooting menacingly above the guy who was making their food.

Now there’s more than one wok behind the counter and each one is smaller than the original that I remembered from twenty years ago. The joint is still hopping. I showed up well after the lunch rush and two cooks were still in motion, which was a good sign. I ordered my rice and watched and waited.

“How hot do you want it?” the waitress asked me and I said, “Normal. Just please bring me some fish sauce with chili and I’ll fix it myself.” She ladled what I’d asked for from a container behind the counter and handed me a little bowl. The chili was so finely diced that it looked almost like powder and the fish sauce smelled old. I braced myself.

The cook tossed a handful of sliced pork into the wok and let it sizzle, then added an egg and tossed it about for a while. Then he scooped out enough rice to feed several starving orphans and dumped it into the wok. There was a spurt of obligatory flame and then he turned his attention to someone speaking to him from the kitchen. Then he returned to a short burst of moving the rice around the wok and then it all went on a plate—my plate.

It wasn’t the worst fried rice I’ve ever had. That honor goes to Phnom Penh Noodle House, which once brought me a plate of it that had been scorched. It was however a plate of rice that had been heated, not fried. There were hunks of warm chicken, a slice or two of onion, and some basil leaves. I could, and have, done better myself at home, and I left most of it uneaten.

It took a while before I had the strength to resume my quest but at last a day dawned that was bright and sunny, daffodils and crocus decided to bloom, and my optimism returned. On a whim I stopped at Song Phang Kong on Jackson Street, the one place in Seattle that is so much like a Thai noodle shop that I always expect to see motorcycle taxis waiting outside it when I leave.

I’ve had good food here, sausage both Thai- and Lao-style, papaya salad with a generous dash of fermented fish, and chicken that had been grilled over charcoal. I knew that the lady who had presided over the kitchen had died but her husband was still in place. Although fried rice wasn’t on his menu, fried noodles were, so I asked if he could make me what I was longing for. “Yes,” he said.

Before disappearing into the kitchen, he made me a Thai iced tea that was almost sinful, tart with lemon and tamarind and topped off with a thick layer of half-and-half. Traditional? No. Delicious? Absobloodylutely. My hopes soared a little higher and were nourished by the view of one of his arms, visible through the kitchen doorway, moving in the St. Vitus dance of a seasoned wok user. My only reservation was the rice he had taken into the kitchen, scooped out from deep within a rice cooker. Perhaps, I told myself, it was rice that had been cooked the day before.

He brought me a plate that was heaped high with rice, chunks of chicken, sliced onion in profusion, and a generous helping of broccoli and carrots. That was fair. Although the green vegetable usually used in fried rice was sold right across the street at Viet Wah, he had no reason to have pak kana in his kitchen. I’d ordered off the menu, after all, and he’d obliged. When he showed up again to ask me how my food tasted, I told him it was delicious.

I lied. The rice was clumped together as if it had been meant for sushi. It was soggy and mushy and I couldn’t finish it. I ate enough to be polite and asked that the rest be put in a box, although I never intended to touch it again. But it was my fault, not his. I’d asked for fried rice and he had cooked fresh rice for the day to accompany the dishes he had on his menu. I told him I’d be back soon for his sausage and I certainly will be—but fried rice will never be my request again.

I was still hungry. Slowly and sadly I made my way up to the end of Broadway on Capitol Hill, where Rom Mai has been for decades. Full disclosure: I’ve known the owner for over twenty years; we became friends long before he opened his own restaurant. So when the waitress asked me what I wanted, I told her I wanted to ask her boss a question.

“Can you make me fried rice with pork? Not with broccoli but with pak kana, like Bangkok? The kind where the rice isn’t soggy?” I was almost in tears and his answer was swift and reassuring. “My wife takes the rice from the top of the cooker and she works out all of the lumps. And we give people whatever vegetables they want to eat. She’ll make you Bangkok khao pat moo.”

When the rice was put in front of me, it was spread out on the plate in almost individual grains. Each bite had the flavor of the garlic, onion, and pork with which the rice had been fried. It was succulent, without a trace of sogginess, accompanied by pak kana cut on the diagonal and pork that was thinly sliced but still flavorful. In a restaurant that is almost formal in its decoration, where dining is the word that comes to mind rather than diner, I had khao pat moo that was as good as any that I’ve eaten on a sidewalk from a pink plastic plate on a table that bears a holder filled with a roll of toilet paper. And for me there is no higher praise than that.

Rom Mai offers fried rice with crab as one of its specials. I’ll be back. Soon. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Alaska: Beyond the Palins and the NRA

Although every household in the small Alaskan community that I grew up in was equipped with a rifle, it was a tool of last resort, used to bring in food when supplies ran low. Although people traveled on foot and by dog sled, a rifle wasn’t usually what was carried on a pack-board. Between wild beast and mankind existed a form of peaceful coexistence, unless the animals were in rut, or with offspring, or needed on family dinner plates. Then all bets were off.

Scotty, a quiet, gentle family friend whom I adored, ran an eleven-mile trap line in the woods near his cabin outside of what was with some exaggeration called “town.” He was on the trail when a bull moose came out of nowhere and charged his team of four dogs. The dogs, three-year-old litter-mates and no pushovers, went for the moose, fangs bared, while Scotty, who carried only a hunting knife with him, grabbed a chain that he used in the traps and joined the dogs in their battle. The moose backed off and then came back in a second charge, kicking viciously at the dogs and leaving deep head gashes on two of them.

At this point the story takes on Paul Bunyanesque proportions. Scotty made a noose in the chain, managed to throw it over the moose’s head, pulled the makeshift lasso tight, and tied it to a tree. He drove his dogs a safe distance from the attack scene and went back to release his captive. He couldn’t reach the chain to untie it because the moose was in full panic mode, thrashing about in unsuccessful escape attempts.

With two of his dogs badly hurt, Scotty had to walk back to his nearest neighbors for assistance and four men returned with him to unchain the moose. A rifle wasn’t deemed necessary. One of the group lassoed a hind leg with an easily removed half-hitch knot while the others freed the moose from the tree and eased the chain over its neck. Once liberated, the moose charged the group again; they fought it off with the chain until it gave up and disappeared into the woods at last.

Scotty and his friends estimated the moose was around 900 pounds, full grown and uncharacteristically aggressive. It was “on the prod” because of the hard crust of ice that had formed on the snow and turned dagger-sharp when weight broke through it. With bleeding cuts from that crust, the moose was in a bad mood and Scotty and his dogs were the nearest target that it could find.

The dogs recovered from their wounds and Scotty decided perhaps carrying a rifle on the trail might be a good idea from now on. “You know,” he told a big city reporter from the Anchorage Times, “’that moose could have been a big bull.”

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An Aching in My Belly, a Craving in My Head

For the first time in three weeks, my room is filled with the scent of coffee and with my first bitter sip my mind stretches, yawns, and agrees to wake up. It is my drug. Tea is too subtle for me; espresso is too fast. I need to swallow freshly ground beans bathed in boiling water to feel alive in the world and for all of my synapses to fire properly. After over half a century of drinking coffee, the grooves it has worn in my nervous system are too deep to sod over and reseed into a refined green tea landscape. I’m addicted as my mother was before me. I’m sure that coffee ran in my veins before I was born.

Dad thrust a cup of hot sweet milky coffee into my fifteen-year-old hands when I came home from a long, wet, chilly horseback ride to pick up mail and library books. I drank it as a sacramental rite of passage but my next cup was black, and so were all of the others after that. I drank it all night as a teenager and was delighted to find that by morning I had lost five pounds—legal speed.

In New York I was always amazed to find that in that city I didn’t need it. The rush of a Manhattan street woke me into life without caffeine, which was fortunate because the coffee in NYC was vile anywhere above 14th Street. Still I drank that battery acid from the depths of hell that was sold in diners because that was what fueled the city that had given me birth.

My father was the one who bought me my first cup of espresso, down on Mulberry Street, when children still played on the sidewalks with grandmothers in shapeless dresses sitting on stoops to guard them. I drank it with a shot of anisette in a neighborhood joint where nobody questioned my age. As I sipped and felt a tinge of sophistication long before my time, a car pulled up and a man got out wearing a black homburg and an expensive-looking black overcoat. He walked in with an aura of regality and everyone in the place paid him homage with their attention. “Good morning, Large Joseph,” the bartender greeted him as he took his place at the counter and even I, who had barely ever heard of the Mafia, was in awe. Ever since then I’ve associated the taste of espresso with power.

The machine that made that first espresso for me was large and made of gleaming copper; it looked as though it could fuel a small battleship. It took skill to operate, I learned, when I went to a place in Seattle that used a similar system to very bad effect. Before Starbucks, when espresso was still Italian and barista wasn’t a word applied to teenagers who pulled shots after school, what emerged from a well-operated machine could raise a heartbeat from death to hyperspeed in three minutes flat.

And that of course is where the danger lies. I love my little espresso pot with its ceremonial undertones and its chaste little white cups and saucers, but what it makes is not really my friend. Espresso isn’t meant to be sipped; it cools too quickly in those sweet little cups and I could down three of them in the space of writing a paragraph. I need my coffee in a mug that retains the heat, the way I learned to drink it in Alaska.

My parents and their friends drank coffee the way winos clutch bottles of cheap wine, killing a pot at a sitting, their maintenance doses. It was a socially sanctioned time to down tools and talk in long conversations that ranged from the price of chainsaw fuel to the state of the world. In another time and place I use it to fuel conversations with myself and it sparks thought in a way that never comes with the gentler infusion of caffeine in green tea.

This morning I was awake before six, knowing what was waiting for me in the kitchen, and that I know is the thrill of addiction. I’m sure my blood pressure is above sanctioned levels at this moment and I do not give a jolly damn. I have had my drug, and I will have it again tomorrow, and the world is a much less torpid place for me.

And without thinking very much about it, I’ve gone past my first page this morning and am more than happy to write more. The sun is up and so are both of the guys I live with and I am in my caffeine bubble, oblivious.

Thank heaven I never tried heroin.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Been a Long Time Since I Rock-and-Rolled

Watching All Things Must Pass last night before I went to bed has Tower on my mind this morning, close and familiar. Faces I knew and others who were always invoked but never seen, the toad-like face of Stan Gomen, bizarrely normal Bud Martin, squishy-featured Michael Solomon, the anointed one who failed his father, and of course Uncle Ross, a mixture of Kris Kringle and Mephistopheles, drinking Scotch in front of a great wall of books, not records, videos, or cds. Rudy Danziger, who was so proud of having a signing with Beverly Garland by the pool at a Sacramento Holiday Inn, not Norm whose last name I can’t remember but whom I spoke to over the phone every week, who told me “We’re going to get you to Sacramento, why should Seattle have you?” and had me shuddering with disgust, and Heidi Keller, who let Rudy go during the agonizing dismantling of an empire by saying, “Rudy, I want a divorce.” Later she knew the guillotine awaited her when Russ called and asked her to lunch, because in all the years she’d worked for him, he’d never done that before.

The shocker was photos of Heidi when she was young—the woman I knew as a harridan with cold eyes was shiny and really beautiful. “They told me to wear miniskirts to work and then they all looked up my skirt,” which was borne out by an earlier story told to me by one of the old reps. “I walked into Watt Avenue and there was a pair of long legs wearing a miniskirt on top of a ladder, pulling stock.” “Leopard skin underpants and a mini skirt,” the old Heidi vouchsafes in the movie, for all posterity to remember.

“They taught me to swear, to drink, and do drugs. I was one of the guys,” she said, and I winced. That was me, except for the drugs. I too learned to be as tough as any man I worked with but not as much as the redoubtable Ms. Keller, who said, “I went into labor twice at the register.” She didn’t say when, but I would bet it was during Christmas or the 30% off sale.

If she was like me, labor wouldn’t have kept her from either of those events. There was something weirdly exhilarating about facing a line of customers that extended the length of the store and getting them all out the door in minutes flat. There was no attention given at those times, just sheer crazed efficiency.

Two little girls used to come to Mercer and I would always ask them if they wanted their own little bags. They showed up in my line during the 30% off sale and stared at me with reproach at the end of the transaction. “We want our own little bags,” the biggest one said and I quickly apologized, bagged each book, and they let the line continue.

Open to Midnight, 365 Days a Year, was the boast but a customer wrote to us in outrage
once because he came to the store at 11:55 on December 31st and the doors were locked. That occasioned more outrage from upper management than the two times that we were robbed, once at gunpoint.

We made nothing, but our employee benefits were immense. There were Tower Building Blocks that we could cash in when we finally left the company if we stayed for a specified amount of time that I can no longer remember. I think I cashed mine for about 200 bucks after five years. We had employee charge accounts that we could put rep comps on for credit, we had sick leave of sorts and a decent number of vacation days. We had medical, dental, and vision insurance that was better than any employer-based policy that I’ve had since, and the annual parties were bacchanalian. Employee meetings were always at a restaurant that served booze; so were many of the sales calls. The tab from any of those meetings was equal to what any of us made in a month.

When The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death sentence, we kept the book front and center on the new release table, sold every copy we had, and then took special orders, which we put proudly and visibly on a shelf behind the counter. The only caveat we received was that we shouldn’t have the customer’s name also visible, on slips of paper tucked into each book that was waiting for pick-up.

“It wasn’t a job, “one former employee kept saying throughout the movie, “It was a way of life.” Tower Culture, I called it, and it absorbed almost all of us who had ever worked there. We worked and ate and drank together at Mercer, just one big dysfunctional family. Even after leaving by choice, I still dream about the store that is now a bank, vivid dreams where I walk in and try to make it the place it used to be.

There were people who made real money there, all of them in Sacramento. Everybody wanted to be a manager but not for the money, which was laughable even at that level. We wanted our own stores, and it was Russ Solomon’s peculiar genius that made us feel that the store we would manage would be ours.

I was given a 250 dollar bonus once for launching a reading program in several Seattle elementary schools. I could well have used the money but I was outraged. “They can’t give us raises but they hand me this for something that I couldn’t do without the support of this store?” I spent the money on an expensive Krupps coffee maker and a grinder for the beans which had a place of honor in the backroom until some idiot burned out the element.

The best part of the movie was in the outtakes, when Gomen told the story about an elephant they dyed pink and brought into the Watt Avenue store for a Big Pink promotion. He claimed the elephant peed on the floor and drenched the carpet. Russ’s version was when they put the elephant back in the truck to leave, it let loose and he watched a river of urine rush down the street toward the store. “That’s not what Stan said,” someone remarked off-camera, and Russ wheeled upon Gomen. “Well that’s what so-and-so told me had happened,” was his defense and Russ roared “You weren’t even there.” And then two old men were laughing their asses off on a street corner where a beginning of an empire once stood and reigned and went to hell.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bangkok Is Not Thailand

This is Mukdahan, on its walkway by the Mekong. When I first went there, the walkway was empty; the last time I was on it, it was crowded with vendors. The view is still exhilarating and two years ago, I could still buy coffee from this truck and watch the river as I drank it.

Across the river is Savannakhet, another favorite spot, where Laos people are separated from their Thai relatives only by the border formed by the Mekong. The language, the food, the friendliness is the same as it is across the Friendship Bridge that takes me over the river into another country.

Along the river, a short van ride away is Nakhon Phanom, I still miss that lovely, peaceful place.

And there's Korat, where I always stop and spend a day or two before going on to the Mekong cities.

Then there are the people and places I see from a bus window as I travel through Isaan. They haunt me as much as the places I've spent time in.

I think of the small towns that the buses pull into at dusk, where I think briefly of getting off, finding a room, and staying for a while. Someday I will.

But for now, I'm grateful for the knowledge that Bangkok is only a pale reflection of the rest of the country. All that is being erased there is still thriving and vital in smaller cities, tiny towns. Next time I'll skip the capital and go to Thailand.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cemetery of Splendor, Graveyard of Hope

“Developing country” is a description that is almost completely owned by Thailand. The development is raw: tall buildings of striking design tower over tin shacks that house construction workers, their families, and their dogs; ramshackle buses stand still, paralyzed by traffic under the elevated tracks of the Skytrain; children wearing the uniforms of prestigious private schools have after- school snacks in shopping malls of regal splendor while their less fortunate counterparts sell flowers on the streets outside. It’s become a photo gallery of traveler’s clich├ęs: barefooted monks strolling past Tiffany’s, a Mercedes pulling up to buy food from a street vendor’s cart, the homeowners selling their recyclable papers and cans for what amounts to pennies to a man in tattered clothing who drives from house to house on a motor-scooter with a wooden platform tacked onto the back where he places his gleanings.

Development is less stark but always present in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film about his home country, Cemetery of Splendor. He has set it in Khon Kaen, the major city in Thailand’s Northeast and one of the country’s largest, but the movie’s setting is rural. An improvised hospital that has been put in an abandoned school building sits beside a lake, surrounded by trees and near a small temple. Across the water, the shadows of modern buildings break the dome of open sky that features heavily in the film; in a setting this placidly bucolic, days are given drama only from the storms that might break from the puffy-cotton clouds.

The silence is broken by the daily noise of construction equipment that excavate a large piece of ground near the hospital. Nobody knows why, nobody seems to care. It’s a government secret, one person speculates, so secret that there’s no need to hide what’s being done. In the hospital are beds filled with soldiers, spellbound men who spend most of their time in sleep that resembles a coma. Body functions take place without interrupting their slumber; catheters drain urine, and erections caused by dreams are noted with amusement by the hospital staff. The men awaken long enough to eat something and often collapse facedown into their plates midmeal.

Like all of Apichatpong’s movies, this is one is surreal and demands more than one viewing to appreciate. The film’s pace mirrors the lassitude of a Thai afternoon, its unending hours punctuated by meals and snacks and random snatches of chatter. The conversations, though brief, are telling ones. Beautiful ghosts, figures venerated in a local shrine, come to one of the hospital volunteers to tell her that the hospital is built upon the burial ground of past kings who are sapping the energy of the sleeping soldiers to fight ghostly battles; the men will never awaken fully. A young psychic has been summoned to their bedsides to penetrate their dreams and offers to lead the volunteer into the sleeping world of the soldier she has informally adopted as her son. It is a palatial vision, more glorious than anything the volunteer has dreamed of herself, and as the psychic reveals the soldier’s dream world, the volunteer traces her own memories on the grounds of what was once her schoolyard.

Both journeys are equally spectral; a former bomb shelter for children who were threatened by the war in nearby Laos still stands in place near broken statues that filled the grounds of the ancient kings who once ruled this place. These remnants of history, these provinces of memory, are all fragile and doomed, threatened by the buildings that are making their slow progression across the city and the escalators within them that carry mute and passive shoppers, the mysterious backhoes that scoop sacred ground from a royal cemetery.

On one lazy afternoon, the hospital volunteer shares a meal with her adopted soldier-son, who quotes the famous maxim of the revered historical monarch, King Ramkhamhaeng, “There is fish In the river, rice in the fields.” “Rice in the fields and then there is nothing,” is her response, which would be a criminal act of lese majeste in Thailand.

At the end of the movie, she and the soldier exchange dreams. Whatever she is given remains a secret but it has stripped the beauty from her aging face. The close of the story shows her sitting near the excavation site, her eyes staring fixedly at some terrible vision that only she can see.

Apichatpong’s subtleties are rooted in the culture that shaped him and are obvious enough to Thai citizens that his films are unavailable in the Kingdom. He has said that the current political repression means that he can no longer work in his birthplace, that Cemetery of Splendor will be the last movie that he makes in Thailand. As for the audiences who are puzzled by his work, the hospital volunteer has words for them, in English. “You’re a foreigner,” she tells her American husband, “You just don’t get it, honey.”

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stepping on Seattle's Dreams

Yesterday I read about an Ethiopian spice grocer who will be displaced by Vulcan’s purchase of Promenade 23, along with some other small businesses and the only supermarket to serve that part of Jackson Street, the Red Apple. Since I haven’t been to that neighborhood since I moved, even though it’s much closer to me now, I decided to explore in that direction.

This is an old neighborhood, and a graceful one. The Langston Hughes Community Center is a cultural anchor and the Sojourner Truth Library combines Carnegie elegance with a downstairs addition that is flooded with light from skylights and offers seating on modern red sofas. The streets are quiet and it’s difficult to remember that it’s a quick walk from them to downtown Seattle.

Jackson Street is peppered with entrepreneurial success stories that stand out among the Walgreens and Starbucks that have sprouted there. Craft beer from Standard Brewery is showing up in restaurants; it soon will offer food as well as fresh-brewed beer in an expanded setting. Nearby in a dusty shopfront, an Ethiopian lady sells what people have told me is the best fried chicken in the city, and I came away yesterday with almost an entire chicken for less than eight dollars. She sells the Ethiopian version of samosas too, sambusas, and little coconut handpies that are made locally, are consumed in two bites, and could prove to be addictive. A bit further down the street is Two Big Blondes, a consignment shop that sells designer wear; 14 is the smallest size in the place.

The Starbucks is one of the few I’ve seen in Seattle with patio seating and it always seems to have people in it who are savoring their coffee, not gulping it on the run. Across the street the Red Apple sells food for families—ice cream in tubs, racks of ribs ready for barbecue grills, reasonably priced produce, and catfish sandwiches for instant picnics. When I lived in Chinatown, I often walked here in the summer, uphill most of the way, to escape the high prices and Japanese junk food of Uwajimaya.

Then there is the ill-fated shopping center, which the Seattle Times in their usual burst of inaccuracy said contained “beauty salons, barbers, and nonprofits.” They weren’t completely wrong, but except for the nonprofits, the other enumerated businesses are singular, not plural. They failed to mention the one clothing store, whose window announces that they offer in-house teeshirt and hat printing and bears a phone number for those who are in the market for custom gold teeth. There is a Seattle Neighborhood Service Center and a place that takes donations of used children’s clothing—and then there is East African Imports and Restaurant.

The minute I walked in, my nose never wanted to leave. The smells came in a barrage and they prickled my nostrils with scents I recognized and those that were completely new to me. Bags of powders and flour and unroasted coffee beans crowded the shelves, along with stovetop grills for injera, kettles and coffee pots in graceful shapes and delicate cup and saucer sets and pans to roast the coffee beans. Colorful baskets of different sizes were heaped in a container at the front of the shop, with much larger ones filling the shelves. Clothing, most of it beautifully embroidered, hung on the few patches of wall that were not covered with shelving.

This was a store for serious cooks and I was dazzled by the world they knew how to negotiate with skill and confidence. When the man behind the counter asked if I had questions, I told him I had too many to answer in one visit, and then assailed him with the most insistent ones.

There is a restaurant partitioned off from the spice shop, with cozy booths and small tables and a menu that gave descriptions of the 22 dishes that can be eaten there. The coffee is hand-roasted and freshly brewed and can be had for breakfast, since this spot opens every day at 9:30.

This shop and restaurant aren’t just a community resource. It ought to be a city treasure. Instead it has at best eleven more months, less if Vulcan is allowed to proceed with their plans apace. It will be replaced by 570 apartments with underground parking and as a sop to the existing local community, a plaza.

In an area where lovely old houses with yards are the predominant feature, a plaza doesn’t seem as though it is what the residents are going to yearn for—especially when it replaces a very well-stocked supermarket and a very good restaurant and a spice shop that is unique in the area.

Arguably even more alarming is the idea of at least 570 new residents and probably more, depending on the size of those apartments, each with a car to keep safe in that underground parking area. Jackson Street is a major thoroughfare that is filled with several well-used bus routes and now the streetcar. Anyone who has seen what happens in the area from South Lake Union to lower Queen Anne in the late afternoon can only shudder at the thought of almost 600 hundred new drivers taking to Jackson Street every day. Even if there were no other neighborhood impact, this is enough to make Vulcan’s vision for this neighborhood one that needs severe alteration.

It also makes me wonder what exactly is being planned for the new and improved Yesler Terrace project. The silence that surrounds this has been broken, to my knowledge at any rate, by an announcement that the development will be similar to that of South Lake Union. To someone who has lived off Jackson for over a decade and who loves it, this is news to chill my blood. Perhaps yours too?

Paul Allen’s vision for Seattle is not mine. This billionaire is stepping on the dreams of those less fortunate than he—and that is almost everybody who lives in this city.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Granted Wishes at Dong Thap

Ask and ye shall be given--Dong Thap was given to me yesterday after my plea for pho with flavor and I see no reason to ever eat this dish anyplace else in Seattle. Pho in this place bears no resemblance to any I've ever eaten.

First of all there are those fresh made in house noodles. Second is their shape--flat, not round--"This is the shape we use in Vietnam,"said the Saigon-born owner, "Most places here use dried noodles and they are usually rounded." Third is the broth, rich with slow-cooked bones and aromatic with spices which are used with subtlety but are present on the tongue while eating. Then there is the meat--the brisket and meatballs that I chose from the twenty selections on the menu were perfect, not stringy, not dry, completely delicious.

"Never give up on pho. It is wonderful,"the beautiful lady behind the counter said before I left. Yes, it is--if you eat it at Dong Thap.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Desperately Seeking Pho, Long-term Relationship Desired

Yesterday I felt depleted and lackluster and in need of a meal, so I went to Lemongrass for soup. It is a downmarket place when compared to Eric Banh’s joints that are quite nearby, and I figured the only reason for its survival would be its food. A month earlier I’d eaten fried fish with tamarind sauce that had tasted very good to me so it seemed a plausible spot for a hot and restorative meal when necessary—and right now seemed very necessary. The wind was raw and I had prudently worn my rain coat which wasn’t warm enough. I walked in and ordered my food, feeling happy that I was given a seat near the streetside window. When the waitress offered to pull down the shade to spare me from the tanning quality of sunlight, I felt hopeful. If she believed darkness was a positive asset, then maybe the cook would believe in serving the true food of Vietnam.

I know nothing at all about how Vietnamese food should taste, only that the ingredients need to be very fresh and that fish sauce is as much of a staple in that country as it is in Thailand. I come to it as most people approach Thai food in America. If it pleases my palate, then I call it good.

I’d always avoided pho after my first few bowls of it, deciding it was far too subtle for me, and ate bun bo hue instead, which is hearty and flavorful and packs a punch of heat. The first bowl of it that I ever ate had a jolt of fish paste, which I really liked and have never encountered again. Still it pleased me more than pho, which tasted like nothing at all but the herbs that accompanied it. “Too refined for me,” I decided.

Then my friend Kim came to town and we went to eat Eric Banh’s acclaimed pho at Ba Bar. After several spoonsful she told me politely, “This is good soup, but it isn’t good pho. There’s no spice in this broth.”

I was surprised because I had never realized that pho’s broth should taste like anything other than slightly salted stock. When Kim told me it should have notes of things like cinnamon as its anchor, I felt cheated and when I saw that Lemongrass had a five-spice chicken soup, I ordered it.

It wasn’t pho and the broth was a vegetable one, but it did say five-spice and I felt optimistic. I sipped my tamarind soda and looked at the other patrons. Few of them were white and that made me even happier. I smiled at the plate of mint, basil, jalapeno pepper, and bean sprouts, with its generous slice of lime and remembered the Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong that had told me they had no lime when I had requested it for my meal. This place had already passed that hurdle successfully.

My soup arrived in a bowl that resembled a small basin and I covered it with the herbs, sniffing happily as they released their scents. I stirred it all with my chopsticks and found three large chunks of roasted chicken with its once-crisp skin still attached. It detached from the bone easily, dark meat that hadn’t become hard and dry. It all tasted quite comforting, but where were the five-spice flavors?

They weren’t there, or if they were, they were far too delicate for me to detect. What I had in my bowl was typically Seattle pho, a light broth with a clump of rice noodles that clung together in chummy fashion at the bottom of my bowl. The difference was the roasted chicken.

It tasted good, although toward the end I wished I had chili sauce on my table to jazz up broth that had become tepid. But I ate it all and assured the boy who came to clear away the dishes that he had probably saved my life.

I left a sizable tip and went away feeling fed. Whether I was well fed or not, I have no way of knowing. I only know I was given a meal in a bowl that tasted good and made me feel much better than I had before I ate it.

And isn’t this the best that we can ask of a restaurant, especially an unpretentious neighborhood joint with low prices? In some ways I would say yes. In other ways I feel cheated. I would bet that every cook in a Seattle Vietnamese restaurant goes home and puts spices in their pho, ones that I found in a cookbook on my bookshelf. Pho contains a cinnamon stick, coriander and fennel seeds, anise and cardamom pods, and whole cloves, tied up in cheesecloth and simmered for an hour in the broth. They can be bought in a little package at a local Vietnamese grocery. I know that’s true because I bought them myself at Viet Wah recently to put in a Thai dish that I made at home.

Even when Vietnamese restaurants first appeared on US shores, these spices were available, but I’ve never detected any of those familiar flavors in a bowl of pho. They are all well known to American palates. Why aren’t they used? Is it because US eaters associate those spices with pies and recoiled from them in soup?

But then if eaters don’t know they should be there, does it matter if they are missing? As someone who has never cared for pho, I say yes. If I enjoyed the taste of salted water that is augmented with a handful of fresh herbs and the meat that floats in the broth, I’d say who cares?

And this is the question for me: is it wrong to criticize Americanized Asian dishes? They serve a purpose and make people happy. What’s not to love? But I do think it’s unfair that I now have to search for pho that has retained its traditional flavors in a city with acres of places that serve a watered down version of the real thing.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Clean, Well Lighted Places

When I was a teenager, we spent part of one summer with my Aunt Ruth in Easton, Pennsylvania. This was exotic ground for kids from an isolated Alaskan homestead and we were enchanted by this small city’s urban pleasures. My aunt lived in a house that resembled the dollhouse of my early childhood, a big two-storey white Colonial that she had furnished with antiques. Silver salt cellars rested at each place setting in the evening but she was a jolly woman who always made us feel relaxed at her polished table.

My little brother and sister became ardent disciples of their cousin Johnny, a kindly giant who spent most of his free time in his bedroom watching television. He would send them to the corner store to buy snacks and that became another hangout for them, where they learned the joys of cold sodas and instant gratification.

I loved going for walks in the morning when the sunlight was still soft, down the hill to the city's core where a local department store had begun to feature clothes from Glamour magazine’s College Issue. It was still the era of classic clothes for coeds and I wandered through the tweed and bright wool, feeling as though I’d been transported into the pages of a magazine I used to treasure and save when it infrequently came my way in the hills of Anchor Point.

In late summer, Easton was much hotter than any of us was used to and the afternoons were long. Soon after we arrived, I discovered that a beautiful house down the street from my aunt’s was a library and mustering up my courage, I entered what to my unsophisticated eyes looked like a mansion.

The Mary Meuser Library was a carefully preserved old house filled with bookcases and for me, fresh from living ten miles from a library with meager stock, it was my idea of bliss. I’d go in the afternoon, read until supper, and often return for a couple of hours until the doors closed at eight. I’d sit near the fireplace feeling as though I were the daughter of English aristocracy and read greedily, making up for years of lost time.

I read constantly in Alaska but the pickings were slim. Often I’d reread the few books I owned because I’d run out of new words to gobble, or picked up selections on my weekly trip to the library on horseback because they were new books that I’d never touched before. Selection had never been a keynote of my reading until I entered the doors of Mary Meuser’s house.

It became the touchstone for what a library meant to me: books upon books in lovely, welcoming, and intimate surroundings, a private club that anybody could join. It took me fifty years to find it again, in Bangkok, in a library that, like the Meuser, had been a woman’s home. The Neilsen-Hayes Library was a small white house set in the middle of a large garden. Many of its bookshelves had glass doors and shutters of dark polished wood over the windows served as a shield from the sharp Thai sunlight.

It was a sanctuary from the barely controlled chaos that lay just outside its gates, with tranquility and elegance that soothed me every time I went there. A long gallery that was separate from the library offered art and food, and chairs and small tables were sprinkled nearby in the garden. In a country that prided itself on never being colonized, this place provided a touch of colonial charm of the best kind—the sharing of English words in a spot that anybody could enter to be bathed in quiet and surrounded by books.

When I returned to Seattle after my years in Thailand, one of the first things I did was get a library card. Although I used it often, the soul of the city’s libraries had changed. They were media centers, social service centers, and day shelters for people who had no other place to go. They were no longer refuges from the noise and exigencies of daily living. A visit to a Seattle library was a lot like a journey on a city bus, with encounters and adventures that were constant reminders of lives that were uncomfortable, of sidewalks that held tents, of illness that was not being cared for. I began to buy my books from used bookstores, often online, and hated myself for doing that.

Last year word began to spread of a private library with a yearly subscription fee, a place where readers could come and sit and work and read and borrow books. My egalitarian back went up immediately. Why not work on making public libraries more tranquil, I sputtered to anybody who would listen. Why revert to the club-like atmosphere of the Gilded Age, where aging, affluent Seattleites could retreat from the social realities that surrounded them? I felt this way right up until the minute that I was welcomed through the doors of Folio Atheneum.

As the founder gave me a tour of the bookshelves, I saw books I’d loved, books I had long wanted to read, books I’d never heard of. He assured me that this wasn’t an elitist institution, that anyone could come to sit in the comfortable leather armchairs, play chess with the set that was waiting on a table, read the books on the shelves. However the subscription fee allowed readers to take the books home with them. 

When I paid for my membership, the ladies behind the counter were warm and conversational. When I began to browse the shelves, the silence was both welcome and welcoming.
And suddenly I was fifteen again, within the walls of the Mary Meuser library, in a place where the printed word was paramount and books were treated with the reverence they deserve. Without formality, the rooms still held grace and civility, qualities that are as essential a need for all of us as are books.

I know a girl who is just entering her teens, a hungry reader. She’s not quite ready for the books at Folio, but as soon as she is, I plan to take her there and buy her a membership. I know this place will feed her as completely as the Meuser library did me, and the Neilsen-Hayes library, and the small library in Anchor Point with its scanty number of books, because like those other places, Folio holds the best kind of nourishment that can be found. I know. I’m there every week, soaking up its sustenance and feeling profoundly grateful.