Wednesday, June 17, 2009

IEM Session #10- We Need Another Vietnam (Part I of the Ethnic Sandwich Trilogy)

Photo by Canderson

It’s a real bummer when your country gets invaded and colonized. It has a tendency to destroy your traditional way of life. Invariably, a bunch of people get killed; and it's mostly your people, rather than the colonials. But there’s a silver lining that might make some nations think twice before they oppose colonization. Often, the conquering hoarde introduces foods from their homeland into the new colony. When the French colonized Indochina, they brought food items like crusty bread, pâté, and mayonnaise. The natives could’ve told the French to simply shove their baguettes up their a-holes. Instead, they took local ingredients like pickled carrots and daikon, traditional meats, and fish sauce and placed them on French bread along with the mayo and pâté. The banh mi sandwich was born. After the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese emigrated to the US, bringing their sandwich with them. In recent years, the banh mi has enjoyed a big surge in popularity. There was even a story about them in the NY Times this year. Who knows, banh mi could be the tapas of the twenty-tens. But unlike tapas, which were mostly a bunch of overpriced hype, banh mi is a real sandwich for real people. It doesn’t try to fool people into eating something that’s going to leave them saying, “THIS is my meal? I spent $75 and I’m still starving.” The typical banh mi costs less than about any sandwich you can buy. Hell, for the price of one of those bigger Carl's Jr. burgers, you could get TWO banh mi and get fuller than you would from the burger, and not feel all greasy afterwards. And don’t be afraid of the pâté. These days, most banh mi in the USA don’t have pâté, unless you ask for it.

This is clearly food for the people. I am out of work now (yes, still!), but even if I were gainfully employed making $300/hour, the banh mi would remain high on my list of favorite foods. If you don’t have banh mi where you live, you need to move the fuck away at once, because your town is a worthless backwater that I hope never to visit. If there are banh mi available in your town and you’re not eating them on a regular basis, you need to come to the light and stop eating your stupid goulash, turkey roll and Velveeta on white bread, or whatever the hell it is lame white people eat instead of Vietnamese sandwiches.

Seriously, in this economy, if you’re not eating banh mi and taco truck tacos a good portion of the time, you must be some kind of rich bastard thumbing his/her nose at the 99% of the world who can’t afford to pay $20 for a cheeseburger. Start eating banh mi right now and perhaps you’ll fool the rioters when the shit starts to hit the fan, which should be pretty soon at the rate things are going.

Eating Day: May 8, 2009

NOTE: All locations in Oakland unless specified otherwise.

1. BA LE COFFEE SHOP- 812 Franklin St.- 8:45am- $2.20 (Grilled Beef)

In the unlikely event that I’m able to find work again, I have no idea how I’ll ever wake in the early hours like the rest of the working stiffs of the world. At my last job, which I held for nearly 10 years, I didn’t have to get to the office until 10:30am. That was ideal. I’m fully aware that most positions will require me to arrive at work by 9:00am, if not earlier. If I have to work in SF or in a godawful suburb, like I did last time, I’ll probably have to rise before 7:00am to get there on time. On the last two IEM sessions, I did my best to get an early start to afford myself the maximum number of eating hours. I got out of bed around 7:00am on both occasions, but wound up staring in silence for an hour before I even began preparing to leave. Getting an early start for the banh mi session would provide a definite edge. Many of the places open at 7:00am or earlier, but I know of only one purveyor open after 8pm. Alas, I didn’t get to the first stop until almost 9:00am. Two hours of precious eating time had been flushed down the crapper. I was already worried.

If you come to Oakland Chinatown, don’t expect to see a bunch of touristy shit and a large selection of poorly made souvenirs. Unlike the “other Chinatown” across the Bay, Oakland Chinatown is not geared to fanny-packed, Croc-wearing visitors from Milwaukee. This is a working neighborhood that strictly caters to the local Chinese, and to an almost equal extent, Vietnamese populations. With few exceptions, the restaurants here are pretty mediocre. There’s better Chinese food on the other side of the Bay and the Vietnamese spots around International Blvd. @7th Ave in Oakland are generally far superior to the ones in Oakland Chinatown. There used to be a store on Webster St. that sold nothing but various varieties of jerky (known to me as “The Jerk Store” in tribute to George Costanza.) Since The Jerk Store’s closure, the luster of Chinatown has significantly worn off, as far as I’m concerned.

I ate at Ba Le Coffee Shop once before and remember the sandwich having a stale roll, so I hadn’t returned until this session. There were a bunch of Vietnamese men hanging around on 2 adjoining tables, which I took as a good sign, despite the sad-looking stuff I saw in their hot food steam tray. The bread wasn’t stale this time, but it had a peculiar quality that suggested it might have been purchased from a novelty shop. I took one bite and the crust exploded all over me in a cloud of crumbs. Banh mi bread is always on the crumb-y (not crummy) side of the spectrum, but this was something to behold. It was kind of fun, actually. My guess is the bread was day-old, but had been revived by placing it into a toaster oven for a minute or two. At least it didn’t taste stale. While they prepared my sandwich, I saw them take a plate of meat from the fridge and stick it into the microwave. This is sometimes a bad move, but the meat was delicious, though still somewhat cold on the sandwich. You don’t see beef much on ‘nam-wiches. This stuff was kind of teriyaki-esque. I could see ordering this on a semi-regular basis, especially when you consider they have a “buy 5 get 1 free” deal. The place was pretty bereft of the locals, other than the men at the table, who seemed like they may have been the owner’s extended family.

A lone “urban” youth came in and perused the steam tray. The men went silent. The kid looked puzzled. “Ya’ll ain’t got sweet and sour pork?” The lady told him they didn’t have that dish. “Why you ain’t got no sweet and sour? Every Chinese place got sweet and sour, ‘cept you. That shit ain’t right, yo!” He pulled his pants up a couple of inches, adjusted his penis, and exited while muttering under his breath and clucking his tongue in disgust.

2. CAM HUONG- 920 Webster St.- 9:08am- $2.50 (Curry Tofu)

I walked around the corner from Ba Le Café and crossed the wacky diagonal crosswalk that you only see in Oakland Chinatown. It was still pretty early, so the area wasn’t yet bustling with throngs of people speaking Cantonese and shoving each other. (Just as French is the language of love, Cantonese is the language of shoving.) Since the crosswalk was almost empty, I took advantage and walked slowly along the decorative tiles with my arms extended, as if on a balance beam. A guy on the corner looked at me and pointed and then yelled something to another guy standing just inside a Chinese grocery. I’m pretty sure he said, “Look at that crazy white guy in the middle of the street. What the fuck is he doing?”

Cam Huong was the first place I ever tried a banh mi sandwich. It was back when I worked in downtown Oakland, circa 2000. I used to routinely eat two of the sandwiches and a few items from their steam tray as my lunch. It’s no wonder I gained 40 lbs. the first year I worked downtown. Several years passed before I realized there were other places to get this wonderful snack, but Cam Huong remained my go-to spot for a long time because I knew what to expect there. They also have another larger location in Oakland’s “New Chinatown” (which isn’t very Chinese at all) where I would sometimes go for my banh mi fix on weekends. Until the middle of this decade, I hadn’t eaten banh mi except at their two outlets.

When I arrived, there was a Filpina ordering items from the steam tray after her sandwiches were ready. She pointed to one item and said, “I’ll take some of that pork there.” The lady behind the counter told her it was actually bitter melon. “No thanks,” the Filipina said, grimacing. This dance continued for a little while…

Filipina: “How about some of that beef porridge over there?”

Counter Lady: “That’s pork blood.”

Filipina: “Oh God, no! What’s in that roll?

Counter Lady: Liver pâté.

Filipina: Oh boy. I guess I’ll just take the sandwiches.

I chose the tofu curry sandwich once before on a recommendation from a friend and really enjoyed it. (See, I don’t just eat pork!) I remembered large chunks of rather crispy tofu with significant curry seasoning. This time, the tofu had no trace of curry flavor and it was shredded, resembling soggy frosted flakes. They didn’t adequately heat up the tofu prior to placing it on the sandwich, either. It was just mushy and flavorless. Plus, the roll tasted funny. It clearly wasn’t fresh and had a strong taste of shortening. How is this possible? As far as I know, every banh mi place in the East Bay gets their rolls from one of two bakeries. I’ve had stale rolls before, but never one with these Crisco overtones. The only possible explanations are: 1. A really old reheated roll emits this flavor. 2. Cam Huong now has a substandard source for rolls with which I’m unfamiliar. Plus, the pickled daikon was way too sweet.

The whole thing was a pretty lame offering. It’s possible that Cam Huong doesn’t get fresh rolls until later in the day, but that doesn’t explain the cruddy tofu and daikon. And if they can’t provide a quality roll early in the morning, they should wait until later to sell them. To top it all off, they used to have a very sexy chubby-ish girl with a huge rack working there. Unlike the staff at just about every other banh mi place, she spoke fluent non-accented English and could answer any question you had about the food. And she seemed glad to help even the greenest of customers. She’s gone now, and I think she may have taken the decent sandwiches with her. Until the girl and/or the good sandwiches return to Cam Huong, neither will I.

3. BANH CUON OAKLAND- 1326 East 18th St.- 9:31am- $2.25 (Combination)

There is at least one more place to get banh mi in Oakland Chinatown (BC Deli), but I decided to go eat in another part of town. I made it back to my car with less than one minute left on the new-fangled electronic parking meter. I hate paying to park more than almost anything, but if I can exhaust all the time I've paid for, I feel somewhat vindicated.

I turned left off of International Blvd. onto 14th Ave. and was almost T-boned by a guy going westbound at Mach 3. He blew the red light, spun out after he hit the brakes to avoid the fence on the BART tracks, and then turned left at the East 12th St. Burger King, jumping a center island at one point. Seconds later, three OPD cruisers came blasting down 14th Ave in pursuit. They turned the wrong way on East 12th St. A minute later, I saw the cop cars race back in the direction of the perp. I envisioned that they had taken directions from Jay Silverheels on the side of the road who advised, “Him go that-a way.” Mayor Dellums may be right to reduce the police force if these are the Keystone Cops we have patrolling the streets these days. Despite this display of idiocy, it was pretty sweet seeing this kind of Quinn Martin shit so early in the morning.

Banh Cuon opened earlier this year. For years, the building housed Vida's, a soul food-type fried fish place. The slogan on their sign read, “You buy, we fry.” Vida’s actually had pretty good fish, but they were painfully slow. There were never more than a couple of people in Vida’s at a time, but a half-hour wait was guaranteed regardless. Vida was 180 years old and ran the place by herself, even though her feet could muster no more than a shuffle. I’m reckoning she passed away next to the deep fryer with a piece of catfish in her hand. Now that Vida’s is gone, another slow place has filled the void. Usually banh mi is a quick meal, as most of the ingredients are already cooked. The staff generally need only construct the sandwich with little or no cooking required after the order is placed. At Banh Cuon, they cook the meat to order, so when I ordered a grilled pork banh mi a few weeks earlier, it made sense that it took a while. Of course, it’s always nice to get freshly cooked food, but if it slows down the pace so much that you can’t serve others, it may pose a problem for Banh Cuon. There’s hardly ever anyone in this place, so speeding up the orders a little might keep more customers coming.

It took nearly 15 minutes to get my combination sandwich. This made no sense, as this sandwich requires zero cooking to order. It was a little smaller than the first 2 entries, but the bread was very fresh. The top had the right degree of crunchiness, but there was no mushroom cloud of crumbs after each bite. In addition to all the usual condiments/vegetables, the combo banh mi includes sliced ham, pork cake, sliced head cheese, and pâté. I’m not one of these gourmet types, so I won’t front and say, “I love pâté! I love head cheese!” Like you, I am often culinarily immature and still fear liver and many mystery meats. But these items were far less threatening than I had expected. The pâté had only a slight organ-y flavor to it, resembling canned cat food more than anything else. The head cheese is sliced very thin, so it looks similar to prosciutto. The only thing strange is its texture. It was like chewing on a rubber glove. And pork cake is somehwat alike in texture to bologna.The whole experience was surprisingly quite pleasant. I will order a banh mi with these oddities again. Contrary to what one might expect, the combination sandwich does not cost extra. In fact, in many banh mi spots, the combo is cheaper than the single-meat varieties.

If you eat inside the restaurant at Banh Cuon, you’ll find an element of class that no other spot around here has. First, they have a really nice big-screen TV on the wall playing ESPN. Secondly, they comped me a glass of hot tea with the meal. And the counter lady was very friendly. I hope they succeed here, but the location is a little obscure. I was encouraged when I left because a couple of groups came in. Before that, the only other visitor was a crazy-looking woman in pajamas. She brought in some of those fluorescent green and orange gelatinous rice treats packed in a styrofoam tray and covered with Saran Wrap. The counter lady put them on the table by the counter along with some other to-go items. I think she paid the pajama lady with soup, as I never saw any money change hands. FYI, the current exchange rate for 4 packs of colored gelatinous rice= 1 large bowl of Bun Bo Hue.

4. TU TAI- 13898 Doolittle Dr.- San Leandro- 11:45am- $2.95 (Vietnamese Bacon)

I drove home and waited to hear from my fellow unemployment victim, Clark Mosher. He had expressed interest in coming along for a couple of sandwiches. As soon as I exited my car, I felt my fecal window closing like one of those automatic doors in the opening credits of Get Smart. I had seconds to run up the three floors before I made a boom boom in my pantaloons. Prior to the opening trio of banh mi, the last thing I had eaten was a 2 lb. bag of baby carrots at around 10pm the previous evening. I thought I was certain to spray loose orange-hued stool all over the bowl as if from an unholy perfume atomizer. Eating that many carrots often yields very interesting results in the bathroom. Miraculously, the product was a smooth offering, roughly the diameter and length of a billy club after it had been broken off on hippy’s skull a few inches from the tip. It was closely followed by a spiny maritime-inspired descendent, which turned the bowl into a replica of a dead coral reef. And although I had only eaten 3 sandwiches so far, the whole place now reeked of fish sauce.

The timing of this turd couldn’t have been better. After ridding myself of the billy club and the sea-poop, I felt completely invigorated, with seemingly unlimited space cleared for future ‘nam-wiches. Clark called me and I went to pick him up. We waited a few minutes until area vocal stylist Jason Morgan arrived. We all got into my car and headed for San Leandro. I just discovered Tu Tai a month or so earlier, but they were closed every time I drove by. It’s in a crappy shopping center close to the San Leandro Marina, which is a beautiful place. Want to create and impressive date for a pittance? Pick up a few sandwiches here, take them down to the Marina with your main squeeze, and watch the sparkling bay while planes land at Oakland Airport every couple of minutes. You’ll be in Makeout City in no time.

Tu Tai was playing Asian-iszed Muzak versions of some classic tunes: “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”, “500 Miles”, “I Want You to Want Me”, etc. The flaccid arrangements couldn’t kill the grandeur of these blockbuster hits, so a pleasant atmosphere was established. There was a woman there with a floppy hat and gaudy make-up running the waitress ragged. She was making new requests of the waitress every time she passed the table. I don’t understand Vietnamese, but when the waitress turned to go back to the kitchen, she mumbled under her breath. By the dead look in her eyes, I’m going to wager that she was saying something close to, “Please kill me.” I ordered the Vietnamese bacon. I’d gotten it elsewhere once before with similar results, so I’m determining now that this option is probably not for me. The bread was crispy on the outside and nice and fluffy inside and all the condiments were in balance, but the bacon is not at all like the bacon you get at Safeway. Firstly, the strips are entirely white as if they are completely composed of fat, which oddly isn't as good as it sounds. Secondly, the strips were heated somewhat, but not at all crisp. Thirdly, this bacon was even saltier than regular bacon. Every bite filled the mouth with a salty greasy film, but there was no real flavor to be found until a few bites into the sandwich. I began to notice a strange flowery undertaste. Jason said he had a similar taste on his grilled pork banh mi. We guessed that the sandwich maker may have washed her hands prior to making the banh mi and neglected to rinse the lather sufficiently, leaving a scented soapy essence to both of our sandwiches. If it’s not that, they must marinate one of the vegetable condiments in some variety of flower-scented water. Anyhow, the bacon was a little funky and Jason said his grilled pork was pretty bland. I’d be willing to give Tu Tai another shot with a different kind of meat, but if that flowery aromatic is present next time, I’m going to have to cross them off the list. If the essence of flowers trumps fish sauce, something is amiss.

5. LEE’S- 24788 Amador St.- Hayward- 12:35pm- $2.99 (Shredded Pork)

I’ve only eaten one banh mi in San Francisco, even though you can get loads of them in the Tenderloin. I just don’t get to The City very often. And when I do, I’m usually too late for ‘nam-wiches. On a recent drive through the ‘Loin I saw the SF branch of Lee’s. I did some research and learned that Lee’s is a mostly-West Coast chain specializing in banh mi. They even have a branch in Hayward. I debated whether the place was too chain-y to qualify for a session. I finally decided that Lee’s inclusion in this session wouldn’t violate my by-laws, as they are sufficiently unknown to the casual eater.

Calling Lee’s the “Mc Donald’s of banh mi” isn’t quite fair. The sandwich took way too long to be considered true fast food. In that aspect, it’s more like the “Nation’s Burger of banh mi.” In addition to banh mi, Lee’s has “Euro Sandwiches,” which consist of a BLT, turkey croissant, etc. They also have breakfast croissants and something called “Deli Manjoo.” Despite the décor and sterile feel of Lee’s, they were a disjointed operation that ran less smoothly than every mom and pop place I would visit. The counter lady couldn’t figure out who was next in line and they kept fucking up orders, if the complaining group to the right of the register was any indication. Sorry folks, it takes more than mass-produced professionally manufactured lighted signs to make your store a contender to the Grimace and the Hamburglar.

Most every banh mi around here comes on a roll, but Lee’s sandwich comes on a portion of a baguette, which I understand is the way they usually do it “In Country.” The bread was fresh and still appropriately crunchy on the outside with a nice soft center, so I really have no preference in the debate of roll v. baguette. Alas, the pork on the sandwich was a little cold and quite dry and looked like fish food. It tasted like that weird jerky product they used to sell in a smokeless tobacco tin that let kids pretend they were “dipping.” Luckily, there wasn’t much of the stuff on the sandwich. I liked that they were generous with the hot peppers. They helped to disguise some of the sketchy pork. There were all the usual toppings on the sandwich, plus some white stringy items that I suspected were boiled rice noodles. While I was inspecting these and asking Jason and Clark what they thought these things might be, a guy at the next table leaned in and said, “That’s pork skin.” I think the guy thought I was going to get grossed out, but I just shrugged and said, “Well, what do you know,” and kept on eating.

This sandwich wasn’t great, but I have to attribute most of its faults to my choice of meat. I probably wouldn’t have liked this variety too much anywhere. In fact, Jason initially ordered this variety at Tu Tai and the waitress dissuaded him from doing so. It must be an acquired taste that folks outside of Vietnam are unlikely to acquire. It wasn’t inedible or anything, but there are easily half a dozen other banh mi choices that I’d rather order.

6. BANH MI BA LE- 10174 San Pablo Ave.- El Cerrito- 2:50pm- $2.25 (Meatball)

Clark, Jason, and I parted ways. Next, I was to meet Lily Chou and Chris Anderson (Berkeley’s "First Couple of Rock n' Roll Photography") in El Cerrito. They had both only recently discovered the joys of banh mi, which I considered a travesty. I felt it was my duty to get them to eat more of these godsends.

Five sandwiches into the session and I was flying high. Meeting the 8-sandwich minimum was all but a certainty at this point, even with the short hours of the banh mi purveyors. Now, the goal was to put up some big numbers in style. I lingered at home while I waited for Lily to call and tell me when I should meet them.

This seems like as good a time as any to tell the naïfs out there a little about fish sauce. In its general application, fish sauce does not impart a disagreeable or strong taste. It just adds a subtle, pleasant, slightly fish-inspired flavor. Most SE Asian restaurants know not to use it in excess, because an over-pour can turn a delectable dish into an inedible heap of garbage. However, it has a serious smell, even when used sparingly. Its power was made even more evident when filtered through the methane-enriched corridors of my digestive tract. Each banh mi has a mere sprinkling of fish sauce, but my rectum belied this fact. Each vapor apparition I created was a dead-ringer for a child’s long-neglected fish tank, complete with murky water and lifeless decomposing fish floating on the surface. If not for the screens on our windows, the aroma I created would’ve certainly drawn flies into the apartment. If I owned a cat, I suspect he would’ve been rallying around my anus.

Lily finally called and I headed towards El Cerrito. I’ve been aware of the Banh Mi Ba Le on San Pablo for years, but this was my first visit there. I didn’t think this outlet was run by the same people as the Banh Mi Ba Le stores on International in Oakland, but I checked the signs there and they were identical. Incidentally, Ba Le, apparently means “Parisian” (i.e. French) in Vietnamese, so it’s not that uncommon to see unaffiliated sandwicheries with this name or something very similar (e.g. Ba Le Coffee Shop in Chinatown.)

Lily and Chris arrived and we ordered. They’re both semi-vegetarians so they ordered the vegetarian sandwich, which replaces the meat with a weird soy-based loaf that looks a lot like the pork loaf found on most combo banh mi. Those guys eat fish, so they could’ve chosen the sardine version, but they apparently don’t like sardines. So, they went with the weirdo veggie loaf. I don’t like sardines much either, but that veggie loaf looks like astronaut food, so I think I would’ve preferred sardines in this case.

For the past couple of years, meatball has been my banh mi of choice about 95% of the time. Don’t order it thinking you’ll get a Subway-esque meatball sub with red sauce. The meatball banh mi has no red sauce and once the meatballs are on the sandwich, they’re no longer in ball form. They get sort of crushed. It’s wonderfully seasoned pork with tons of flavor in every bite. I suspect they’re the same meatballs you get in pho, just pulverized a little. I’ve encountered new jack banh mi neophytes who fear the meatball option, thinking incorrectly that it may be a “weird meat,” a la pâté or head cheese. Rest assured, this is a very accessible meat. The meatball here was stellar and warmed nicely. The meat itself was as good as the version at my regular place. It was spiced perfectly with a subtle mix of garlic, salt, pepper, and anise, I believe. The only thing a little disappointing was the bread. It wasn’t as fresh as it could’ve been. Perhaps that extra 15 minute drive from Bui Phong bakery on International allowed the bread to age a little too much. Lily and Chris both really enjoyed their veggie loaf-wiches, so if you feel like eating a sandwich fit for a stowaway to the moon, you know where to go.

If you live in Contra Costa county, I highly recommend this Banh Mi Ba Le outpost. You’re not going to find a better banh mi in your area. But if you’re in Oakland or Berkeley, you don’t need to make a special trip here, as the Ba Le at International and 19th has slightly better sandwiches and a bigger selection. Also, the preponderance of white folks at the place in El Cerrito bugs me. I prefer to be the only Caucasian when I order these things. A surplus of white people always ruins ethnic food. I’m happy to recommend ethnic eateries to my white readers, but please coordinate with each other and visit these spots no more than 4 at a time, lest you turn a Taqueria Sinaloa into a Chipotle Grill.

7. HUONG TRA- 12221 San Pablo Ave.- Richmond- 3:30pm- $3.75 (Chicken)

Huong Tra is just a couple of miles up San Pablo from Banh Mi Ba Le. It’s mostly a regular sit-down Vietnamese restaurant, but they have a couple of banh mi on the menu. When I walked into the place the stench was so strong it felt like an invisible assailant had punched me in the face. I hypothesized that somebody may have spilled a jug of fish sauce; but it was as if a malignant vagina had exploded 2 weeks ago. And since no one would agree to clean it up, the funky gaunch was left to ferment even further. It astounded me that people were sitting at the tables there eating, oblivious to the noxious vulva afoot. A woman who looked like a slightly Asian version of Shirley Hemphill took my order. She was speaking Vietnamese to her co-workers, but would slip in an occasional bit of Ebonics in mid-converstation. “Ping pang pong, MY BAD. Ping pang pong. Chee chow chu. FOR REAL, DOG! Wing wang wo, FO’ SHO!” It is people like this that make the Bay Area interesting to me, not people in Temescal wearing Palestinian scarves. There were only two sandwich choices- “pork” and “chicken.” I chose chicken somewhat hesitantly. I’d never had a chicken ‘nam-wich before, but I was reticent to try it due to a disturbing incident that happened in December of 2008. It seems like only yesterday…

I had driven by that new buffalo wing place in West Oakland a few times and finally decided I needed to try their wings. I stood at the bulletproof window and ordered two dozen wings- 12 regular and 12 Cajun. Unfortunately, these weren’t the wings you get at sports bars, Original Buffalo, or even Wing Stop. These were the kind you see on crummy Chinese buffets in Texas. There was a sort of rub on the skin and not much sauce. The regular wings weren’t totally terrible, but they weren’t what I wanted when I was jonesing for buffalo wings. The Cajun variety were pretty gross. The coating tasted like a rancid honey-roasted peanut. That didn’t stop me from eating all 24 wings, though. I felt a little nauseous afterwards, but thought it was just due to the grease. The next day, I developed a fever of 102+ degrees and a very sour stomach. I had diarrhea that came every half hour or so. Thinking I had the flu, I slept on the couch to spare Kelly my germs. I awoke to find my drawers, pajamas, legs, and back doused with watery shit. The stuff was all over the blanket and on the cushions of the couch. It was a total mess that might have prompted a lesser man to move to another apartment while the HazMat team cleaned the site. Unless you count that time I puked once after eating a Burger King veal parmagiana sandwich, circa 1982, this was my first incident of food poisoning. I, the Inhuman Eating Machine, who ate 36 tacos in one day from trucks that may harbor bacteria not yet known to the CDC, was turned into shit soup by mere chicken wings. How embarrassing. I was sick for three days because of those tainted wings, but I didn’t think much of the incident until a few months later when I went to KFC to get a 4-piece. Every bite of the Colonel’s chicken made me queasy. I didn’t puke or loose-poop or anything, but I did not feel good at all. In fact, I even discarded part of one piece and some of the skin. I just don't do things like that! 2 months after that incident, I saw a sign at Church’s advertising a 2-piece box for $1.99. I was already laid off, so there was no way I could pass up that offer. I had the same reaction to the Church’s chicken! What was wrong with me? I love fried chicken. I don’t get queasy from food unless I eat it for 10 hours straight. I didn’t think I’d developed a sensitivity to fried foods in my old age, as I’d eaten plenty of grease-laden stuff in the last half-year. And then it hit me. I had heard how some people develop an aversion to foods that they suspect had previously caused them food poisoning. This was surely my problem. I had developed a condition, physical or psychological, that was preventing me from enjoying chicken. How could I live if I couldn’t eat chicken again? Granted, chicken is probably my fourth favorite meat out of “The Big 4” (1. pork, 2. lamb, 3. beef, 4. chicken), but there are plenty of dishes I will miss dearly if I can’t eat chicken. Take Dulcinea Gonzalez’s fried chicken, for example. I have had dreams about that stuff. If she makes that at a party again and I can’t eat any, I may as well just slit my wrists in a bathtub. I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t eat her fried chicken.

I decided the only way to beat my chicken issues was to confront the problem head-on. I had to continue to eat chicken until it no longer makes me sick. As I waited for my sandwich in the toxic vagina dining room, a very precocious blonde pre-teen girl came in and ordered a meal to go. A few minutes later, her very aggro grandmother came in to pay for the meal. While the woman rifled through her billfold for the correct credit card, her phone rang deep in the recesses of her massive purse.

“Grandma, that’s your cell phone ringing.”

“I KNOW! I can only do one thing at a time!”

“It smells bad in here. Can we get some wontons?”

“You don’t like wontons!”

“Yes, I do. It’s Caitlin who doesn’t like them.”

“No, it’s you.”

Fun scenes like this make me wish I were having kids. The sandwich came just as I was becoming used to the room’s essence of gynecological fermentation, but I decided to take the sandwich to go. I took a few bites outside before I drove. The bread was very light and fresh. So, it’s not impossible to get a quality 'nam-wich roll this far from Bui Phong. The chicken was very tender and moist and tasted like a cross between the five spice chicken they serve at Cordon Bleu in SF and the BBQ chicken you find on Vietnamese rice plates. I was very pleasantly surprised with the sandwich, despite its high price tag. Even though they had created a great banh mi, I was still getting somewhat queasy from the chicken. I got in the car and ate while I drove. With seven sandwiches inside me, I was deathly afraid that my newly acquired poultry aversion might cause the whole megilla to take flight from my stomach. I kept one eye on the curb, in case I needed to pull over abruptly. I somehow managed to get through the entire sandwich unscathed. And afterwards, I felt pretty great. I felt like my pollo-phobia was waning. I reckon that in a few months I should be eating buckets of chicken in my underwear. And I will leave the couch diarrhea-free unless the guys behind the counter “forget” to wash their hands after going to the toilet. I was starting to get somewhat full, but I knew I could eat at least a couple of more sandwiches in the next hour or so without any difficulty. This Inhuman Eating Machine thing is a piece of cake.

8. PHO GA HUONG QUE CAFE- 1228 7th Ave.- 4:52pm- $2.25 (French)

I’d walked by this place a million times and had no idea they had sandwiches in addition to their pho and other Vietnamese specialties. It’s on the edge of Clinton Park, the de facto town square for the New Chinatown neighborhood, which is really about 75% Vietnamese. I guess the name “Vietnamtown” just doesn’t bring in the dollars the way “Chinatown” does. The park hosts the annual Tet Lunar New Year Festival and other Asian cultural events. They even had a Pow-Wow there once in association with the Intertribal Fellowship located half a block from the park. When the cultural stuff isn’t happening, the park is full of old Asian men screaming at each other and smoking the hell out of cigarettes. There’s an occasional derelict passing through, but they don’t seem to hang out too much, at least during daylight hours. The park is only one block square with a lot of hustle and bustle around the perimeter, so it’s probably one of the safest parks in which to hang out in Oakland. There is no place for bad guys to hide here before they spring and bash your head open with an aluminum bat, which happened in Dimond Park.

The café is huge for a neighborhood joint. Close to 200 people could eat here at once. However, it was empty, except for the employees and their ill-behaved toddlers running roughshod all over the place. I don’t know how they can keep such a huge place in business when it was this dead so close to dinnertime. The banh mi choices were chicken or “French.” I had no idea what a “French” banh mi would entail, but I wasn’t prepared to try another chicken offering so soon. I was getting over my chicken issues, but I know I had to take the process gradually. I envisioned the French sandwich containing escargot, but it turned out that it was simply a “combination,” like the one I had at Banh Cuon. I think the pâté on the sandwich is what makes it “French.” The sandwich was strangely longer than any I’d eaten that day. The roll had an extra crunchy crust, but tasted very fresh. The sandwich was pretty identical to the version at Banh Cuon, except the pâté here seemed to be a little mayonnaise-y and their head cheese was less rubbery than Banh Cuon. Which version was better? Let’s just say it was six of one, half a dozen of the other.

I sat on a bench in the park taking in the scene. Two albinos were doing REALLY slow tai chi. I mean, these guys were moving so slow their movements could barely be detected by the naked eye. It’s possible they were actually just a couple of stroke victims on a walk. Enter a very dirty derelict with a head that consisted of 5 dreadlocks that resembled dried cow shit. He was yelling into a garbage bin- loudly. “I SAID, I can’t hang with that bitch, okay?!” Perhaps he was trying to coax some returnable cans out of the bin using this scare tactic, but he left empty-handed, except for a couple of plastic spoons. That, my friends, is dinner theater East Oakland style.

9. SAIGON WRAPS & SANDWICH- 3301 E. 12th St. (Fruitvale BART Plaza)- 5:35pm- $3.25 (BBQ Pork)

I’ve written before about the plaza at the Fruitvale BART station. In theory, it’s a good idea to have a mini-business district there so BART riders can pick stuff up quickly as they get off the train. However, in practice, the whole set-up kind of blows. Just outside the plaza is the REAL Fruitvale district where you can get all the great Mexican food you’d ever need- for cheap. Within the plaza, however, are sterile ethnic eateries only slightly more exotic than what you’d find in a mall food court, with prices considerably higher than outside the plaza. There’s the crummy sushi place, the crummy Chinese place, and even a crummy Mexican place, unless that closed already. The only reason anyone would eat at any of these places is because they were either too lazy or too afraid to go out onto International Blvd. There’s also a beignet/coffee place called Powderfinger or Powderface or Powderpuss or something. I’m a big fan of the beignet, but I checked the prices there once and kept on walking. In addition to the restaurants there is Plug, a tattoo/piercing emporium where you can also get gold teeth and “urban clothing.” Now that’s more like it.

Saigon Wraps and Sandwich is the plaza’s attempt at co-opting the ‘nam-wich places 20 blocks to the west. Wraps? Really? What year is this? When I first moved to Oakland, you couldn’t walk a block without seeing a place selling “wraps.” Who thought it was a good idea to put any goddamn thing inside a tortilla? And who thought a green tortilla was appetizing? Was there something wrong with sandwiches back then that caused people to decide that they must be replaced by a faux-rito? Luckily, those wrap places (360 Burrito, World Wrapps, etc.) are now all but gone and they took almost every Boston Market outlet with them. Saigon Wraps looks like all of the other places in the plaza and has a very chain-y look about it, but it may be the business' only location. The posters in the window are very pro-looking, but they’re chocked full of hilariously awkward English: “Extra thick Texas toast pan-grilled layered with 2 cheeses, fresh bacon, eggs, and a melting sensation outside.” AND “Now this is call a BBQ.” Normally, signs this cute would be enough to make me a regular patron, but they’re not really trying very hard with the sandwich here. The bread was toasted in the toaster oven, but it was so dry to begin with that even the loads of mayo they applied couldn’t moisten it. And the bbq pork tasted like nothing. If not for the jalapenos, I may as well have been eating wet wood chips in a toilet paper roll.

Now it’s time for a message about bbq pork (xia xiu) banh mi. This meat option seems to be the most popular choice for novice banh mi eaters. It’s what I ate before I got some stones and ventured further. Most bbq pork versions aren’t as lifeless as the Saigon Wrap offering, but even the best I’ve tried pale in comparison to even a mediocre meatball or grilled pork sandwich. Meatball, in particular, packs so much more flavor and is never dry like xia xiu often is. Please do yourself a favor and try something other than bbq pork next time you order banh mi. There’s a whole world of wonderful meat waiting for you out there, so don’t limit yourself. You wouldn’t restrict yourself to only carne asada tacos at the taqueria would you? (If you answered “yes” to this rhetorical question, please kick your own ass.)

This sad banh mi finally pushed me into the realm of the uncomfortable. I knew the sensation would pass in a little while, but I was going to have to rest a little before I ventured further. I had to take a leak really bad and nobody in Fruitvale will let you use their toilet. Since I didn’t think I could make it home without wetting my pants, I went to our practice space. NOTE: My window for urination is almost as small as the one for defecation. I need to put a Travel John in my backseat.

10. BANH MI BA LE- 1909 International Blvd.- 6:20pm- $2.50 (Egg)

After I relieved myself at the practice space, I couldn’t help but see the familiar red awning on the corner of International and 19th Ave. I was pretty full already, but I didn’t think it was right to do the session without eating at my regular spot to see how their banh mi stacks up. They were going to close in about 10 minutes, so I figured I’d just get one sandwich to go and eat it when some measure of hunger returned.

As far as I can tell, this Ba Le location is the only place in the East Bay that offers an egg banh mi. This is strange, because everything I've read talks about how popular the egg ingredient is on the banh mi in Vietnam. The egg is cooked sunnyside up with the yolk left runny. You can get the egg as the sole protein on a sandwich, or you can get an egg added to any other sandwich. I think it’s an additional 50 cents as an add-on. Any banh mi with an egg is immediately taken to the next level of awesomeness and it will help keep you full. If I had eaten egg on every sandwich of the session, there was no way I could’ve completed the session. I would’ve folded before noon. According to the menu at Ba Le “opla” is Vietnamese for “egg,” but it must have some other connotation. When I ordered, the counter lady and a guy who may have been her brother or cousin began cracking up and shout-singing. “Opla! Opla! Opla! Hahahaha!” I laughed along with them, but I had no idea what I was laughing at. “Egg! Egg! Egg!” Man, that is some funny, funny stuff.

There are three Banh Mi Ba Le stores in the East Bay now. There’s the one in El Cerrito that I already talked about. There’s the big one with the eggs on International and 19th Ave. And then there’s another one (the original store, I think) on International and 15th Ave. Yes, that’s right, they have two stores 4 blocks away from each other on the same street. The one at 15th Ave closed about the same time they opened up the much larger version at 19th Ave. The new place also has a much larger menu with a wider selection of banh mi, plus soups, smoothies, rice plates, noodles, and more. I figured the one on 15th Ave. had simply closed to make way for the new and improved 19th Ave store. Nope. About 6 months after the 15th Ave store was closed, they reopened exactly the same as before. I still don’t get it. The one at 19th Ave has EVERYTHING the 15th Ave place has and much, much more. Are there people in the neighborhood who won’t travel those additional 4 blocks to get to the newer store? Is there an invisible gangland borderline that patrons will not cross? Who knows? I’ve eaten from the new-old store on 15th Ave since it reopened and it was as great as ever, but they don’t have egg, so I really don’t see why I should ever choose it over a place that is closer to our practice space that has eggs, a place to sit, and as I learned since this session, a bathroom! I won’t have to use the filthy toilet at the practice space ever again- unless it’s after 6:30pm.

I got home and I thought my throat was going to close up from thirst. I had drunk considerable amounts of water throughout the day, but it must not have been enough. My tongue was dry and felt like it was caked in goo. Banh mi usually gets a little sprinkling of fish sauce just before it’s served. Although they don’t use much, fish sauce is very high in sodium, so I suspect that even a little of the stuff could induce the powerful thirst I experienced. I went to the kitchen and drew a tumbler of water from the tap- 24 ounces or so. I drank the whole glass in a few seconds while standing, drew another tumbler, and then sat down. I drank that glass in a few minutes and still couldn’t quench my thirst. I rose and filled the glass again. I drank some more and the thirst began to subside, but my belly was now distended far in front of me and I was impossibly full. My stomach was now churning loudly like an institutional dough mixer. I was powering out gurgly farts even fishier than what I was producing earlier in the day. I belched cautiously, because every burp brought a little acidic, watery “batter” into my mouth. I looked at the wrapped egg sandwich on the coffee table. The paper was saturated with yellow yolk. But there was no way I could fit even a bite into my gut with all of the water I’d ingested. I would have to wait until the waters subsided. I sat in extreme pain as the walls of my stomach stretched from the pressure of the water and sandwiches. I conjured up a gaseous finale that shook the room like a timpani roll in the “1812 Overture.” It reeked as if I had stored a whole mackerel in my anus, gripping it for weeks in my sphincter. This release allowed me to drift off to sleep.

I awoke around 8:30pm. I ran to the toilet and urinated furiously with juicy flatulent accompaniments. I was hungry again. I sat down and unwrapped the egg sandwich. The whole thing was moist from the yolk now, but it was perfect. The bread still seemed fresh. The carrots, peppers, and daikon were all appropriately crunchy and there wasn’t too much mayo. The egg white was cooked perfectly- not runny, but not too rubbery, either. Ideally, the egg banh mi should be served hot. When you combine it with the meatball topping, you cannot find a better banh mi sandwich in the East Bay. But even in this compromised condition, Banh Mi Ba Le creates the Vietnamese sandwich that everyone else wishes they could be. I polished off that soggy piece of heaven in a minute or two and was more than capable of eating a couple of more now. Unfortunately, every place was already closed, except for Saigon Express on Shattuck in Berkeley, and I knew I’d never arrive before they closed. I didn’t really mind that I didn’t make it there, though. I was perfectly happy to end with the sandwich I always suspected would be the best.

THE BEST: Banh Mi Ba Le (International Blvd @ 19th Ave)

THE WORST: Saigon Wraps and Sandwich

COMING NEXT TIME: Italian Deli Sub Sandwiches- Part II of the Ethnic Sandwich Trilogy