I just came back from a brisk walk, stockpiling coffee before our coming 4-day weekend (after Saturday, nothing will be open until Wednesday morning, at which point there’ll be nothing in the shops because they won’t have re-stocked yet), and on my way back up Friedrichstr., almost to Torstr., I saw that a new business had opened in a bad-luck location that’s been a half-dozen things in the past few years. This one, though, might make it.
Its predecessor was a store called Come In, which sold, uh, jewelry and stuff, just another un-thought-out business waiting to get pounded into the ground, which happened in due time. The new joint has just as cute a name: Yum Mee. Irritating as that is, it both advertises what’s for sale and shows off the horrid Orientalism which holds forth here in those two words. However, what it sells (in part) could be a godsend to the ‘hood: bánh mi. Half the menu is regular baguette sandwiches, the other half a somewhat timid approach to this classic Vietnamese snack.
My own introduction to bánh mi came in Honolulu, whence I’d gone to do a story on Hawaiian music, which is a much harder assignment than you’d think. Still, I had a motivated researcher in the person of my friend Margaret, who’d moved there with her new husband, Rollo Banks, one of America’s leading tattoo artists. (Please note this was before every idiot teenager in the world had a tattoo. Rollo had inherited the designs of Sailor Jerry, and was still poking them out at China Sea Tattoo on Army Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown.) The day I’d arrived in Honolulu, I’d done something very smart: not fought the jetlag. This was Margaret’s idea: “If you wake up at 6 and go to bed at 10, you’ll be keeping local time, and you’ll never see the tourists.” She was right.
One morning, then, Rollo offered to take me on a tour of Chinatown at 6 in the morning, and I of course jumped at the opportunity. They tell tourists Chinatown is dangerous, and if you’re asked, you should echo that opinion. It’s not, of course, true, but Chinatown is sleazy — or it was back in 1990. at any rate. Rollo was an inspired guide to the sleaze, too; we went to a dime-a-dance place where there was a live orchestra of Filipinos. The drummer — and I can swear to this, having stood right next to him — was asleep, keeping perfect time (all he needed to do was whack the snare), and picking a scab on his neck in his sleep. On the periphery of the dance-floor were little booths where the dance-hall girls — Okinawans, Rollo said — gave blow-jobs for five bucks. There was an antique shop (and why was this open at 6am?) where I bet someone who knew his Chinese or Japanese stuff might well uncover a bargain: it looked like the stock hadn’t been added to since about 1920. Various closed bars were passed and their legends commented upon, and then we went to the wholesale fish market, where multi-ton tuna were being wheeled in straight off the boat while the sushi chefs from the best hotels in the state swarmed over them bidding on the choicest bits. Outside the fish market was a fruit and vegetable market, and Rollo bought a perfectly ripe mango, whereupon he pulled out his knife, stabbed it, and started carving it with careful in-and-out motions. He withdrew the knife, wiped the blade on his jeans and popped the mango open, its flesh falling apart into discrete bite-sized chunks, much to the admiration of the young Vietnamese woman who’d sold it to him. “I learned that trick from a teenaged whore in Bangkok,” he said, and she turned a very unusual color.
We ended the tour in a Vietnamese coffee-shop whose name I carefully wrote down, only to discover later that the two words meant “coffee shop” in Vietnamese. And there, for breakfast, I had a paté, shredded daikon, shredded green chile, homemade mayonnaise, cilantro, shredded carrot and lettuce bánh mi on a perfect baguette, with two cups of that rocket-fuel Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk to wake me up. By the time we got back to Army Street, there was a line in front of China Sea that led around the block. “Oh, hell,” Rollo sighed. “Fleet’s in.”
Anyway, with that kind of intro to bánh mi, no wonder I’ve been waiting for them to show up here. I doubt Yum Mee will be that good, but I’m also intending to head down there tomorrow at lunchtime.