Cơm tấm

12 April 2023

He stepped out of the Grab and was immediately hit by a cloud of sweet, savory, sticky smoke that ballooned from the simple charcoal grill. “That’ll definitely stick for a bit” he thought to himself, walking up the step into Cơm tấm Nguyễn Văn Cừ.

”????” the boss lady yelled at him. He couldn’t really make out what she said, but he was sure it was in Vietnamese so he gave up immediately.

”Three” but he could barely be heard over the noise of plates clattering and friends chattering.

”How many people?” she repeated in English.

”Three people.”

She motioned with her hand to follow.

Then Dad stepped up and she continued to talk to him in Vietnamese.

The three of them, the brothers and their father, were sat down in the corner. They were sharing a table with three men. Two were quintessentially American, given away by their size and spoken language. The third (no relation to the Americans) looked like the lead of a Wong Kar Wai film, complete with slicked back hair and smart white dress shirt. His drama lead toughness completed by slowly munching on raw red peppers.

Menus were passed around and he was surprised to find that there were only seven things on the menu, all combinations of barbecued meats, broken rice, and add-on sides.

”Okay what do you guys want?” Dad asked.

”I want the pork chop with fried egg”, he pointed at combo number one.

”Yeah I’ll get a pork chop too."

"Whats this?”, he pointed at some words in Vietnamese.

”It’s meatball”, Dad pointed to the English in parentheses following the Vietnamese. “I’m going to get the meatball and pork skin."

"Okay, I’ll get that too, so for me, pork chop with fried egg and pork skin."

"I just want a fried egg with mine.” His brother had always been a little hesitant to try random foods, especially when he was hangry, which he probably was since they had just finished a session at the bouldering gym, Vertical Academy. Perhaps “Sweaty Academy” was a more fitting name. It was a gym built in an old warehouse. An army of fans blew into the main bouldering area but they couldn’t overcome the 90F overcast heat and humidity that represented half of Ho Chi Minh City’s annual climate. He wondered if his Dad had ever known a day without sweat before coming to the States. If he had been born to the sweat, was raised in the sweat, and lived by the sweat until the new government prompted his haphazard departure from the sweat some forty years ago.

Dad got up to order, using his broken Vietnamese, broken by a lack of usage for the last forty years. Then they all got up to be moved to another table, away from the English speakers to a less crowded table at the front of the restaurant. As they moved, three boys wizzed around them with trays of food and cleaning supplies. They traveled at break ankle speeds in rubber sandals, setting down food, picking up plates, wiping down empty tables, and juking out customers, adding to the comfortable level of chaos that came from the crowded tables.

Soon enough, the boys were setting things on their table. First, a tray of wet wipes (2k dongs per use), followed by a teapot with three glass mugs filled with ice, a paper straw sticking out over the rim. Finally, the three plates of food and three bowls of fish sauce. The eyes could finally accompany the nose to appreciate the perfectly charred barbecued pork chop glistening with fish sauce glaze, sitting on top of half sized grains of broken rice and shards of pork skin. Aside it all, the fried egg had ballooned and blistered during it’s deep fry process in a generous helping of oil. He drizzled the fish sauce slowly over the rice before giving up and dumping the rest of the bowl onto his plate. The first bite was incoming.