A month before I was in the depths of Ballard, Seattle eating an equally good hamburger, drinking a beer and reading the menu at a place that was so neighborhood and ungentrified that everyone over the age of 65 seemed to congregate there in the afternoon to work on their crossword puzzles. It was quiet and sunlit and seemed like the sort of diner where the coffee was still made in a percolator. I was checking out the other locations where the owner had similar dens of iniquity and good food when I read something that stopped me cold. "Excuse me," I asked our waiter, "but do you really have a barbecue joint in Nonthaburi? And is that Nonthaburi in Thailand? Or is it maybe a suburb near Mukilteo?"
It was indeed a spot in Thailand, only a matter of kilometers from where I live, and as I discovered when the owner of the place later chased me down the sidewalk saying, "The waiter said you wanted to talk about Thailand," it had barbecued ribs and honest-to-god hamburgers and rootbeer floats and margaritas that did not resemble a slushy from 7-11.
I was enchanted. Every so often I yearn for a taste of the Old Country and MacDonald's or Tony Roma's simply doesn't cut it. I was also skeptical--how could anything from the American West survive in a town as small and as resolutely unhip as Nonthaburi, which is known for its durian orchards and for its terminus for the commuter boats that travel up and down the Chao Phraya
River? Yet I love taking the river boats and I am always optimistic about new food possibilities, so I persuaded several friends to make an expedition into unknown territory in search of real American food.
It was a varied group that climbed onto the boat to Nonthaburi--my housemate Rod whose formative years were spent in Texas and who then was seasoned in the wilds of Idaho, my housemate Zam who had lived in and near Bangkok for his entire twenty-something life and whose idea of American food came from Pizza Hut, KFC , and other US franchises that had become standard sights of the Thai landscape, Rod's friend Jom who is a fashion designer of some note and had spent a fair amount of time sampling the culinary delights of roadside diners while escaping from New York and Los Angeles during his sojourn in the states, and me.
We zipped along the river of kings, passing pagodas, temples, mosques, and palaces, all looking out of place, of another time, and as though they could easily suck us into their world and hold us there forever. It was a relief to reach the lights and bustle and taxis at the Nonthaburi pier, and to be back securely in our own time and place, speeding in a cab down a suburban road.
Suburban it was but a Thai suburb, which means that among the strip malls and housing developments were wide swathes of greenery and an occasional wooden house and a bovine animal or two wandering down the side of the road. We pulled into one of the strip malls where a sign announced we had reached Barbecue Sandwich King and then we walked into a highway joint in America.
But this was the America of my childhood, where the owner wanted to know our names and told us to call him Mark. He began to handcraft our margaritas while the smell of frying meat filled the air and we all waited for the moment of truth--was this the real thing or a very convincing fraud?
Our silence said it all, as we shared bites of barbecued ribs and pulled pork in a sandwich and a hamburger that would choke any horse I've ever met and a vegiburger that provided the only rice that any of us ate that night. We made small appreciative sounds and ate and sampled and suddenly were staring at empty plates. And we all knew we had discovered America even before Jom observed, "If this were Thai food, we would still be eating. We've come so far and we've eaten so fast."
Food is culture, and usually I experience Thai culture with Thai friends eating Thai food. But it makes me feel happy to know that beyond the outskirts of the Bangkok metropolitan area is a spot where I can go with my Thai friends and for one short moment be in a part of America that can be difficult to find even in the States. Thanks Bad Albert--long live Barbecue Sandwich King.