I dragged my congested self out of bed on Saturday to be part of the Food Panel discussion at the Vietnamese in NYC minifest called “Hay Qua.” Immediately after the event, I had to drag myself back to bed, but not before getting an awesome Banh Mi lunch with a side of inner peace and enlightenment.
I thought I was about 10 minutes late, but it turned out I was almost an hour early. I forgot that these were my people – punctuality is for the workplace, and Hay Qua was not work. And classic Vietnamese, it didn’t get crowded until lunchtime when the Banh Mi arrived – we love to eat and if we pay to eat, you better believe we’re going to be there to eat our money’s worth. An Choi, BEP, and Nicky’s all provided Banh Mi to sample. I’m not going to lie, I sampled a LOT. All 3 provided ridiculously delicious, grill chicken and pork garnished with pickled veg tastings. I’d love to pick a favorite, but in all honesty, I can’t. Being under the weather, my sense of taste is a little under right now and I don’t think it would be fair. You know the only solution, right? A banh mi crawl. You take a day and travel the boroughs sampling banh mi while taking tasting notes. It’s the only fair way. I also don’t like comparing food when it’s prepared en masse. I want individual attention lavishly garnered on my banh mi; pickled carrots and daikon lovingly hand-placed on crusty baguette. Hot summer days naturally compliment tropical Vietnamese cuisine, meaning that now is the time to take on this mission. Who’s with me??? (Yes, Nick – I see you. Put your hand down. We’ll get you that banh mi tasting badge)
Overall, I was the least-impressive participant by far, but I’m used to that. I was lucky enough to sit sandwiched between Thu Tran of Food Party and An Nguyen Xuan of BEP. If you haven’t seen Food Party, you need to. It’s beyond description, but if I had to try, it’s a little like Japanese Pop Art meets Sesame St. meets Japanese game show meets Martha Stewart meets Rachel Ray meets chemical-aided hallucination meets The State (the old MTV sketch comedy troop that rocked the 90s). Basically, it’s crazy amazing and Thu is the genius that drives it. If you have seen Food Party and like me, have wondered what she’s like in person, let me tell you: she does not disappoint. She’s hilarious without effort. The girl is REAL. She does and says exactly what she wants and thinks in that particular moment. She’s also humble and reserved. Once she gets on topic though, get out your tissues because she’ll make you laugh so hard that you’ll cry. An is also hilarious. He rocks a French-Vietnamese accent, is light-hearted and funny, and doesn’t stop smiling (probably because he’s constantly making himself laugh). Sitting between these two felt like being at a bar, just chilling with good people. We could have been anywhere – we just happened to be on a small stage talking to a roomful of people.
Tuan Bui of An Choi was the tallest Vietnamese dude that I have ever met. I don’t know how tall he is, but he’s like a one-man Vietnamese National Basketball team. He was thoughtful and well-spoken and has such a classic, well-groomed manner that I instantly felt like a putz. He, too, left Finance to get into food and has done so pretty successfully with An Choi. My confession is that I’ve never eaten at either An Choi or BEP, but meeting both Tuan and An has made me confident that they’re doing Vietnamese food justice. I’m excited to go try their current menus and then constantly go back to see how they continue to expand! Also on the panel was Yen Ha of the Lunch blog. This lady is no joke. Besides her impressive food blog, she’s also a partner in her own architecture firm. On top of all this, she is simply graceful and elegant. Her quiet confidence is so intimidating that I could only muster a “hello, nice to meet you.” I consciously decided that “less is more” with her and wouldn’t subject her to my diatribe of nonsense the way I torture all of you.
I finally got to meet the lovely Tam Ngo as well! Oh, did you know that being an amazing food writer and photographer is something she does in her spare time when she’s not practicing law or sitting on the board of Open House New York? Yeah. Talk about impressive. Oh, and she’s stunning. Girl’s able to eat a LOT (judging from her food pics) without gaining an ounce. Damn.
And you’d think that with all of this, I would have left Hay Qua feeling pretty self-conscious and down on myself… Full (of banh mi), but still down… Yet I didn’t. I actually left feeling… content. The theme of the day was one of savoring the now, heralded by Phong Bui (artist, scholar, and publisher of the Brooklyn Rail). With a buddha-like grin (and haircut), Phong gave an hour-long, reference-filled, speech that helped everyone in the room find a little more peace and acceptance with where each of us is in our lives at this moment. For me, it helped me actually laugh a little at my current predicament and find nothing short of amusement with all of my recent… pitfalls. Phong, too, was a career changer who saw a piece of art that changed his life forever. Yet he admits that he still doesn’t know where exactly he’s going (although his path thus far is pretty damn incredible). As someone who’s constantly asked “what’s your end-goal,” this rang so true to me. Is it OK to not know where you’re going, but to just enjoy the journey? If there is a destination point, what happens when I get there? Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be the type of person who has a goal or a target and just sets off to achieve it… but I’m not. I guess, like my friend Annette, I’m a wanderer, hungrily eating all of the experiences that my haphazard, hazard-filled life has to offer.