I was eating lunch at Pho Quang Trung in Garden Grove last week--a very, very good pho shop, on par with some of the best pho in our pho-crazed county--and it was jammed full of Vietnamese families out for lunch on New Year's Eve. Little Saigon was hopping in general, and it seemed like everyone had descended on this one place--a good sign of an authentic pho shop.
The problem was I could not get them to take me seriously. From the old woman who crossed my obviously non-Vietnamese name off the list of people waiting for a table to the waiter who looked on doubtfully when I ordered tendon, I got "whited."
Many times, it takes me a few minutes to realize. I have many, many Asian friends. I will eat almost anything, I handle chopsticks better than I handle a fork, and I know what to do with every one of the sauces on the sideboard, so it doesn't occur to me that I'm being singled out for the Americanized treatment--being "whited," as it were.
First, I didn't get a menu; then, when I borrowed one from the next table over and ordered pho tai chin nam gan (no tripe for me--it is the one thing I don't like in pho), I got a bemused, polite look, and he read back only the rare beef, the well-done flank steak and the brisket, not the tendons. When I insisted on the tendons (the best part of beef pho, really), I got a bemused shrug. The pho showed up with a fork and--tellingly--without a table salad.
I don't blame any ethnic eatery for "whiting" people. I look like the archetypal white guy. I look like mayonnaise and chicken fingers, not bun bo Hue and banh xeo. They've undoubtedly been burned by complaining white people. You know the types, the one who whine with that too-loud, too-offensive sense that nobody around them speaks any English. "Ewww, what part of the animal is THIS?" "Does it moo, or does it bark?" These are the people who think the only meat on a cow is steak, that the only part of a chicken worth eating is the boneless, skinless, tasteless breast, and they're the destroyers of my ethnic eating experiences, even though I go out of my way to avoid them.
I just hate it when it happens to me, and on behalf of all the other non-Vietnamese lovers of Vietnamese food, of all the other non-Mexican lovers of real Mexican food, etc., I strive to get past that assumption.
Eventually, I got through to them; it was a nearly audible "click" when I started shredding ngo gai into my pho and set chile paste and hoisin sauce in a dish for my meat. Suddenly, the fork disappeared, smiles appeared, and a bowl of red-bean che was set down on my table, just as it was on every other table.
So what's the secret? How do you get the real stuff? How do you express to the people who think you want chicken breast and no chile heat that you can handle what they've got to dish up? Short of trying to buy people of that group dinner so they'll translate for you, here are five suggestions:
1. Go outside peak hours if you can
You're more likely to be able to discuss the situation with waitstaff who are not under the gun for a lunch or dinner rush; if you can wait until 1 for lunch, the crowd will clear out, and you can actually engage your server in a conversation that may convince him or her to give you the native treatment.
2. Accept some of the "whiting"
Sometimes, it's just not worth the rise in blood pressure. If you've got 80 percent of what you want, and you're tired of arguing while your food ages gracelessly on the table, maybe it's not so bad that you didn't get that last 20 percent. Don't insist they remove the fork; just ignore it in favor of the chopsticks.
3. Insist politely
The ultimate responsibility for making sure you get what you want lies with you; if you want tendon in your soup, it is up to you to insist politely (at first, anyway) that it be put in your soup. Be prepared, however, for people to watch you eat it without bothering to disguise their curiosity and even comment. ("Oh, you like real Vietnamese food! Ha ha!")
4. Enlist the help of other tables
Other people want you to love the food. Chances are that at least one of the tables near you is watching you strive with the staff and only holding back because they don't want to embarrass you. You can, within limits, enlist their help; I've had people be willing to translate, gesture to their dishes to explain that you want the real stuff, and even get up and have a shouting match on my behalf in condescending-sounding Cantonese.
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5. Go repeatedly
This is the best way most of us have to get the good food. Become a regular. Use the other four suggestions to muddle your way through, and eventually, they will know your face and you'll become "that white guy who loves our food." This is my plan with Pho Quang Trung.