At the very back of the grocery store was a small archway, and beyond the archway a greasy spoon restaurant that would not have been out of place in the dingiest parts of Taipei. The walls, once white, were cream colored from years of wok cooking. On those walls were posters, each one announcing a Hmong New Year’s celebration now past. Four rectangular tables filled the small dining area. On the day that Manyu, Clare, and I were there, an old Hmong man sat at one of the tables eating a bowl of pho. At a second table, two middle aged Hmong women waited for their food. This description of the restaurant may read like a low budget martial arts movie script, but it is also what the place looked like.

Along one side of the restaurant was a window counter for ordering, and behind the counter was a kitchen. Alongside and slightly above the window was a banner-sized menu. I stepped up to the window, and a Hmong woman in the kitchen shouted, “What do you want?” Even with my Asian American wife and daughter standing right next to me, she made me feel like I didn’t belong.

“I want to order some food,” I said.

The ordering went well, although I did momentarily stump the woman when I asked whether she had any vegetarian dishes for Clare. After some thought, she suggested the pad thai. Clare then ordered pad thai. I had chicken and rice, and Manyu ordered beef and tripe larb* with sticky rice.

Manyu, Clare, and I sat down at the cleaner of the two unoccupied tables. Fifteen minutes later the old man who’d been eating pho, but now was relaxing after his meal, told me that our food was ready. The woman behind the window hadn’t announced my order or maybe had announced it in Hmong, but either way I wouldn’t have gone to the counter had the man not said something. When I got there, the woman said, “The sticky rice is still cooking. I gave you regular rice. Eat the regular rice now. When the sticky rice is done, I give you that, too.”

As I carried the food to our table, the old man pointed at a twelve-pack of bottled water on a nearby shelf. “Water costs seventy-five cents if you order carryout,” he said, “but it’s free if you eat in.”

“You’re an expert on this place,” I said.

“I eat here a lot,” he replied.

The food was good, but every dish was wrong in some way. First of all, the pad thai wasn’t vegetarian. Fortunately Clare was fine with eating around the chunks of chicken. Second, the larb was much spicier than Manyu had expected, meaning she couldn’t eat it. She likes spicy food, but has a chronic stomach problem that keeps her from eating anything really hot. She put the beef and tripe aside and instead ate a mound of rice along with the chicken from Clare’s pad thai. Third, my order wasn’t there at all. Because Manyu’s beef and tripe was spicy enough to mask the taste of the tripe, I started in on that.

When the woman behind the window let me know that the sticky rice was ready, I asked her when my chicken would be done. “It is done now,” she said and put it on a styrofoam plate as if she hadn’t forgotten to give it to me.

After we finished eating (with enough rice left over for another meal), I went back to the counter to pay. I asked the woman if she accepted Visa. “I think so,” she said. “I take any card the machine lets me take.”

As Manyu, Clare, and I walked back through the grocery store on our way out, Manyu noticed a bin of kabocha squash not far from the door. Japanese kabocha is one of Manyu’s favorite vegetables, but not one that she can always find in the produce sections of regular supermarkets. There wasn’t anyone working in the store, so I had to go back into the restaurant to pay for one squash. The woman behind the window looked at me and said, “Now what do you want?” The words sounded harsh, but she was smiling when she said them.

* Larb is a cold salad of chopped meat, greens, and Southeast Asian herbs. Until recently, I thought a dish needed to have beef in it to be called larb, but Yang’s menu includes a larb made with fish.

Steven Simpson