Com tam at a tiny joint in Oakland Chinatown

    A guy waved a bottle in front of me. “Nesquik?”, he asked. I shook my head no thanks. Five seconds after he walked away, I realized my stupidity. I missed a free bottle of Nesquik! I don’t remember drinking Nesquik for the past 15 years, or ever, but I know what it tastes like, and I like chocolate. Why did I say no?!

    Because I live in Berkeley. One thing Berkeley trains you very well for is saying no. Each time you walk pass a homeless man or woman, whether he or she asks for spare change or curses you off or shouts “nice dress”, you silently say no. Each time an activist steps up to you and says “Hi how’s it going? Would you have a minute to talk about …?” and you can barely tell what it’s about because he or she squeezes those two sentences in the hundredth of a second you lift your foot, you say no, usually with a smile because you feel bad. So you prepare this automatic respond when a stranger sticks something under your nose: No thank you. And you end up missing the free Nesquik.

    But Berkeley also makes you nicer. And it’s not because the hippies convince you about world peace or anything. First it’s because you travel by bus. The bus always comes late, and not everyone sitting next to you has showered in the past 30 days, so you learn patience. Second, it’s because, as the saying goes, “it’s Berkeley, you can do anything“, and people, including you, wouldn’t bat an eye, so you learn acceptance. Then there’s the protests (boy do Berkeley students love protests, although those never yield any result beside some kid ending up behind a police car). I could list a dozen other reasons. But mostly, it’s because you see everybody from every corner of the world. My first encounters with the Serbian, Iranian, Bosnian, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Eritrean, Ethiopian people, and the smell of marijuana all happened in Berkeley. And those encounters (except the marijuana) quickly became friendships.

    So I used to get a little uneasy, and I’m ashamed to admit this because I know it’s mean, when I saw Chinese people selling Vietnamese food. Here’s what I think: they don’t make it right, so they shouldn’t call it Vietnamese food. (I’m disturbed when Vietnamese people sell bad Vietnamese food too, because that’s disrespecting your own people.) And I avoided Vietnamese restaurants owned by Chinese. But when I strolled all over Oakland Chinatown last week, there were some occasional raindrops, the sky was grey, it was getting cold, and I just visited the Japanese Buddhist Church for the O-bon festival. All of those things put me in an exceptionally good mood. Although I set out to find Vietnamese snacks, it quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to find any, so when I walked by a window sign of “banh mi, bun bo Hue, banh canh” and a list of other Vietnamese staples, I caved.

    Five minutes later, I ordered a cơm tấm (broken rice) with grilled pork “for here”. The lady pointed me to Table 2 (Let’s refer to her as Lady 2 from now on, many ladies worked at this joint). I put down my bags.

    Then she exchanged a couple of words including “xiè xiè” to a couple sitting at Table 4. Yep. It’s Chinese people selling Vietnamese food.

    Well, that’s okay, I diverted my gaze to the TV, Lady 2 also made herself a bowl of noodle soup and watched a Vietnamese movie while eating. It was hard to hear the TV because the following things happened during the course of my dinner: a customer dashed out into the street while Lady 2 shouting after him in Vietnamese to tell him to run slower, Table 4 chatted loudly in Chinese upon his return, Vietnamese customers coming in to buy banh mi and cha lua to go (the only dine-in people were Chinese and me), and as I scooped up the few last spoons of rice, a fight broke out outside, which caused Lady 2 and everyone else rushing to the street. I had to stop Lady 2 to pay, her eyes still directed a yearning gaze door-ward.

    When I told my mom about the fight, she suggested against going back to such place, who knows when the fight will take place in the restaurant. I see her point, but I think I’d risk it. The com tam, and that includes the grilled pork, the broken rice, the nuoc mam and the pickled carrots and daikons floating in it, was beyond perfect. 🙂

    Price: $6.75
    Address: Ba-Lê Deli, Coffee, Restaurant
    812 Franklin St (between 8th and 9th St.)
    Oakland, CA
    (510) 465-3522

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