On The Menu

Chapter 2


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Here is part 2 of my mini-memoirs.

Chapter 2

Oklahoma. The first thing most people think of when they think of Oklahoma is probably something like the Trail of Tears or the Land Run or maybe the great Oklahoma Sooners Football team. Most people would think that being in the southwest there wasn’t much diversity in Oklahoma. (Charles Barkley even stated something along the lines of the only brothers in Oklahoma were on the Sooners football team.) This is both true and false. While I did get my fair share of racism growing up (and I really thought then that this was from being of Vietnamese descent growing up in Oklahoma, I’ve come to realize that people are ignorant no matter where you are), I did attend an elementary school that had an abundance of Hispanic kids, a handful of Asians (albeit they were all related to me) and two or three black kids. It wasn’t until after I left Sacred Heart to go to Kingsgate Elementary is when I noticed that there were a lot more kids that were white than yellow. Other factors also contributed to the feeling of not fitting in: things such as being into D&D and comic books and anime and that I was a little runt. It’s funny that it wasn’t until I beat the coolest kid in 6th grade in a game of teatherball that people started to actually notice me. In any case, I tried very hard to fit in even denying myself who I really was. Even when I made the basketball team my sophomore year in high school I still didn’t really fit in. Then I got accepted into the great Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics. (The only reason I got into the “prestigious” school was my sister Suzy. They very rarely reject legacy students. I mean I even knew at the time that I was not smart enough to go to that school. I also wanted to stay at Westmoore because my basketball coach wanted me to play on his AAU team that summer, rightfully assuming that I’d finally grow and fill into my size 11 shoes. But instead of learning how to be a good point guard that summer, I taught myself trigonometry.)

OSSM is as diverse as you can get in Oklahoma, and quite possibly is still to this day the most per capita diverse place I’ve ever been included in. More so than U-DUB, more so than Boston. There were over 70 of us in my junior class and we had at least one of everything: Indian (both dot and feather), Chinese, Vietnamese, African-American, gay, straight, and of course country hick. Here no one was pretending to be something they weren’t. There was the football quarterback and the cheerleader that chose to leave their popularity to try to get ahead. There were the kids from the small country schools in rural OK that could now get the attention and higher level of education they deserved. And of course there was me, a very confused 15 year old kid who didn’t really know who he was but definitely knew who he wanted to be….which was anybody else.

I could write a whole book on my experience at this school. Living on the campus of OU (they have since built dorms closer to the school itself) for my junior and senior years of high school has given me more than a few stories and that’s before I get into the educational experience. In fact, I’m very surprised that none of my former classmates have written an OSSM memoir yet. Then again, maybe the experience there is just like at any boarding school across this world and not worth writing about. (I mean, Harry Potter has already given his great boarding school experience and no one can possibly top that.) But the point of these mini-memoirs is to discuss how food has impacted my life and OSSM had a large part to play, so I won’t get into anything that would distract me from the main topic at hand.

Seeing all these other kids, from different backgrounds, just being themselves was the big freight train to the head I needed. None of these kids were afraid or ashamed to eat the rice or noodle or curry dishes their parents gave them to bring into the dorms. In fact, compared to the alternative (the OU cafeteria) these meals were a godsend. This was the first time, outside of any of my relatives, that I could tell someone I had soy or chao and not have to explain what these dishes were. Quite a revelation.

At this time I also got an education in other cultures’ food. Vivek (when he wasn’t getting Taco Mayo from the student union) and Aswin would bring various Indian meals prepared by their moms. I remember them being not only spicy, but full of flavors I have never had before. I also started getting into debates with the Chinese, Pakistani and Iranian classmates over what the best ethnic food was. Of course not many people have tried Vietnamese food before, thinking it was just like Chinese food, but that didn’t stop me from trying to get everyone to know that there was no better noodle soup than pho. Since we lived in the dorms Monday through Friday, on the weekends I’d go home and ask my mom to make me Vietnamese food, enough so I could bring some back to the dorms to share. I rarely did though, because I would eat it all before my dad or Tino took me back to the dorms on Sunday night. By the time I had left OSSM, I now knew enough about different ethnic foods to go to any restaurant and order comfortably. What I didn’t know was that there were “normal” (read “white”) people that were already as comfortable and knowledgeable eating this non-normal food.

Thanks to OSSM I was now more comfortable being inside my own skin and also with a newfound pride for my parent’s heritage. When I got to Seattle, I found myself being very proud of being an Oklahoman. I chose to go to the University of Washington (aka U-DUB, UW, Washington) over RPI, Georgia Tech, and a few other colleges for many reasons. Great engineering school, great location as far away from Oklahoma as I could get, over thirty-five thousand students, and a 52/48 female to male ratio. I was ok with the shear size of the campus and the fact that I just went from OKC to Seattle wasn’t nearly as mind-blowing as I thought it was. That first day in Hagget Hall 1/2 south I had already met someone who loved pho as much as I did, and he was a white boy from Portland. Rob grew up with plenty of Korean and Vietnamese friends. He knew how to use chopsticks. Up to this point the only people I knew who ate Vietnamese food and could use chopsticks were my own relatives. This completely shook my whole notion that white people only ate tacos and spaghetti. Then there was Jason and Vince, two guys who grew up in various places around the world thanks to being army brats. They knew about Korean kim chee and bulgoki. They too knew how to use chopsticks and didn’t even flinch when I described the food my mom would cook at home. In fact, they were drooling and telling me to have her send some food to the great Northwest. Immediately I was falling in love with Seattle. Here was a place that not only I fitting in, but I was doing so by being myself.

The Ave is a stretch of 10-15 blocks of University Ave in the U-district of Seattle. Up and down this street holds the greatest collection of ethnic food I’ve ever come across. It wasn’t the greatest food mind you, at least not all of it was…but there was Mongolian, Greek, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, and German among others. I can’t quite recall whether the idea came from my friend Little Jeff or if I came up with it on my own, but by the time we graduate I was going to eat at every restaurant on the Ave. I can sadly say that this did not happen. I found one too many favorites and would just keep eating at the same places over and over again. My favorite times eating was when we’d introduce someone new to pho. Pho, the quintessential Vietnamese dish, is probably one of the few meals that everyone will eat differently. Everyone has their own way of eating pho and its great watching people eating it for the first time try to find out how they want to eat it best. (In fact, this became my go-to 1st date. I thought I could find out enough about a girl from watching her eat pho. Now I realized that they found out too much about me, the slurping, the spilling broth everywhere, the ability to speak Vietnamese at a barely pre-kindergarten level. This is probably why none of those dates every panned out. The best one had to be when I took this beautiful coed to Thanh Vi on the Ave and this little girl walks in with her dog. I point to the little girl and say something like, “It’s great that they let you bring in your own lunch here.” My advice to people out there, don’t make dog eating jokes on the 1st date…girls normally don’t call you back. I actually didn’t take Abby out to pho until our second date, and she ordered a Chinese dish too. I really thought I’d never go out with her again…good thing I didn’t let that clearly erroneous food sin affect my better judgment and now she’s my wife.) I wish I could relate how people ate pho to their own personality, but I’m just not smart enough to do that. For example, Vince loves his pho with so much sriracha that the broth turns a dark orange/reddish color and you can feel the heat from across the table. Does this mean he has a fiery personality? Or how about Jason, and his one spoon at a time technique, where he’d put some noodles and broth in the spoon and then squeeze a little sriracha and hoisin sauce on it before he slurps it up. Then he would repeat for the rest of the bowl in the same manner, making him always the last to finish. Does this mean he’s meticulous in everything else he does? Someone out there working on their Ph.D in human studies should do this as their thesis. Correlating pho eating to personality. As for me, I like my pho with a lot of lime juice, a few drops of sriracha, tons of bean sprouts and hoisin sauce on a side plate to dip the beef into. After I finish all the noodles I will then spoonful as much broth into my mouth as my belly can take. Man, I want a bowl of pho now…

Though I did go get Vietnamese food a lot, I found other favorites along the Ave. There were tons of Thai places on the street, but Thaiger Room and Thai Tom (owned by the same family) were the best of the best. To this day I still think that’s the best Thai food I’ve ever had in the States. Aladdin’s gave me my first taste of Greek food. Sure it was just gyros and baklava, but really, what else do you want from Greek food? The fact that they were open until 4AM every night meant many mornings waking up still drunk with a gyro wrapper and some lettuce on me. (And god I really hope that was just tzaziki sauce…) I already knew about sushi, but I didn’t know about teriyaki, and the Ave had no less than 5 of these little Japanese places. We would argue over which ones were the best, and I can’t quite recall the name of the one I liked most. (It’s on the corner of 45th.) But the amount of chicken or beef you got for $4.99 with the side salad with the orange colored vinaigrette (which was very similar to the salad dressing my sister Tina would make for us) was one of the best bargains around.

It was at this time that I was opening up my palate, not only for taste but also as a human being. I used to say, “That sucks” or “I hate that” to things I’ve never even experienced before, judging books by their covers. This was for both food and life experiences. Now I was opening up more and was willing to give everything the benefit of the doubt. I used to hate mushrooms on any dish. If any hint of mushrooms happened to be on an entrĂ©e on a menu I’d avoid that dish like the plague. Even though I probably won’t ever eat a mushroom on it’s own, I’ve grown to enjoy the earthiness and deep woody flavors these fungi add to various dishes. (I actually love them on pizzas now.)

When I graduated from college, I had not only a degree in Electrical Engineering, but also a degree in being John Paul Nguyenkim. I was also getting into the Food Network and cooking for myself and others. I was reading books by Anthony Bourdain and staring at fancy cookbooks by famous chefs every time I passed a bookstore. I wanted to know how to use a shallot correctly. I wanted to own my very own Global chef’s knife. Most importantly, I wanted to travel far and wide to eat everything this world had to offer. It was strange, I once was motivated to go on vacations for beaches or for partying. Now I wanted to travel solely to trek to Thomas Keller, Jose Andres, Gordon Ramsey, etc’s food meccas. Food: The Final Destination.