Dana Filek-Gibson offers sage reflections on making it, or breaking up, with the local street food vendor.
Difficult as it is to imagine life without roadside sandwiches and Black Cat delivery, there was once a time when each of us actually had to cook a meal or we would starve. For some, this was — and perhaps continues to be — an enjoyable activity. My forays into the kitchen, however, often resulted in the consumption of cereal, canned goods, or something called ‘barbecue pasta’.
In other words, I have a deep appreciation for street food. Over the past few years, I have developed a heavy dependence on local vendors. The attraction comes not only from the host of affordable dining options but also the camaraderie. Apart from my own family, no one else I know seems to fill the role of asking too many questions and encouraging me to eat beyond my capabilities. My ability to form relationships is limited, except when it comes to platonic bonds with street food vendors. I could write a book on the women who make my breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On first dates
Chi Hien, my current barbecue-and-rice lady, may very well be the Soup Nazi of Saigon. I had to eat at her shop for more than a month before the waitress stopped throwing my meal at me and started just setting it on the table. On the occasion of my first visit I was publicly shamed for asking if we could order. But the fish sauce was unbelievable — so much so that I suffered the abuse — and when she did come around, Chi Hien was a gem. I have since made small talk, seen pictures of her kids, shared stories from my home country, and received the distinct privilege of sitting beside this flinty proprietor in the corner from which she oversees her operation.
The moral of this story is that patience and kindness sometimes triumph over temperamental street vendors. These women come off as tough, no-nonsense businesspeople, but underneath that matching outfit is a person with feelings. Besides, given the number of customers a street vendor sees each day, she probably is not willing to put up with your drama. Never arrive at a street cart expecting your pho on a silver platter unless you want that pho with extra bugs in it. Just wear a smile, keep your head down, and wait for the day that your own Chi Hien gives in and invites you to sit with her.
The great adventure that is life requires you never to confine yourself to a particular person, place, or breakfast food. Some might boil this down to a fear of commitment, and to that I say, you’re probably right. Like all relationships, street food alliances are delicate and easily broken. If you rely too heavily on one person, there is the chance that you may one day end up alone, hungry, and realising that you’ve forgotten how to order food from other people. Don’t limit yourself to one dish or one vendor. It is possible to have multiple regular spots on the go, as long as they serve different food. If you try becoming a regular, for instance, at two banh mi stands, you inevitably will find one superior to the other.
All good things must come to an end. Whether your separation is amicable or not, it is important to make a clean break. I had a pleasant friendship with the girls who ran a local banh mi shop until one day a new owner appeared. Suddenly, the price of my order rose every time I visited. This happened two or three times before I realised that, despite my year-long allegiance, no one was going to step in and inform this lady that I was a valued customer. It took a few days to get my breakfast situation righted, but it was ultimately for the best. All you can do in these circumstances is take the high road, but always bear in mind that the high road sometimes runs past that vendor’s shop and allows you to make hateful, passive-aggressive eye contact before driving away. Hell hath no fury like a hungry, kitchen-incompetent woman scorned.