September 25, 2006


It was a ludicrous question, really. The waiter didn’t even understand it. I have to assume that John and Rachel, the couple there with us, were terribly embarrassed. They knew the restaurant owner, as I recall, a friend of a friend.

They had been going there for dinner regularly since moving into their apartment, which was right next door to ours, in a garden-style complex in one of the more fairly-undesirable locations of Alexandria, Va.

The question I asked:

“Can you leave out the mint? Can I get it without the mint?”

To this day, I’m glad the waiter didn’t speak English. If he had, he probably would have either a) laughed hysterically or b) spit in my hair.

The “it” in which I did not want any mint included was number 31. A traditional Vietnamese dish, number 31 consisted of shredded lettuce and mint leaves covered by squiggly vermicelli noodles. Resting atop the noodles were two skewers of grilled pork that had been marinated in lemongrass and other spices, two halves of a Vietnamese spring roll (also filled with pork), and crushed peanuts. Served on the side is a small cup of a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham.

Visit any Vietnamese restaurant and you’re likely to see this same dish, as well as a version with beef or chicken. For reasons I don’t know, only the pork version is accompanied by a spring roll in the bowl.

At the moment of “the question,” I knew absolutely nothing about Vietnamese food. In fact, I knew very little about food at all. To that point in my life, I ate no seafood, no vegetables to speak of. Meat was ordered medium-well. Salads were iceberg lettuce topped with creamy dressings. Beverages—alcoholic ones, at least—were no better. I avoided wine and drank only the water-dressed-as-beer offerings from America’s mega-brewers.

Our presence at this restaurant was the direct result of a new friendship we had developed with our soon-to-be-mollified neighbors. Aside from proximity, we had other important things in common with John and his then-girlfriend (and later ex-wife) Rachel. They, too, were only a year or two out of college. They, too, were new to Washington, D.C. They, too, were working disturbingly low-paying jobs, which meant dining out was a treat.

John had grown up not far from Maryland’s eastern shore, and for many years his father worked in Washington as an attorney for the federal government. His family had friends there, including a Vietnamese woman who had a friend who owned a small restaurant in an area known as Little Vietnam, a single plaza off of Route 7 in Alexandria’s Seven Corner’s area in which every business is geared toward Vietnamese clientele.

It was a weeknight and only a few other customers were there. We were the only Caucasians. It was clean, in that there were no visible signs of dirt or bugs or soiled utensils. There were maybe 12, well-worn tables, with likewise well-worn chairs. Nothing could be described as glimmering. Vietnamese muzak floated around our giggly conversation.

At John and Rachel’s recommendation, Sarah and I both ordered number 31—and a Coke, which was brought to the table in a can, accompanied by a small (possibly plastic) glass.

Based on the menu description, it was clear I had never eaten anything like this before. And, yet, apparently the only thing about it that gave me pause was the mint. As far as I knew, its only use was to flavor iced tea.

The ludicrous question was posed. Because it was obvious the waiter didn’t comprehend it, I gave up. I’d pick out the mint.

When our meal arrived, John and Rachel explained that you pulled the pork off of the skewers and poured the nuoc cham over top. The mint was at the bottom with the other stuff, so it might prove difficult to scoop out.

I was probably pretty hungry, so I just went for it. I tossed it altogether into a big, mysterious heap. I may have even used chop sticks.

The pork was incredible. It was actually tender, something I did not realize was possible. Lemongrass was a revelation for my inexperienced taste buds. The nuoc cham was sweet, a little spicy. The shredded lettuce and peanuts were crunchy.

And the mint? Little bits of it would sort of burst in your mouth, and it made everything else taste that much better.

Over the next year, we would visit Number 31—which is what we came to call the restaurant—at least once a week. Number 31 was our usual. On occasion, we tried, and usually liked, other things.

And we always got a Coke, in the can.

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