Saturday, April 25, 2015

In Search of the Perfect Banh Mi

I was grouchy before I even got to the birthday party last night. There were some reasons: too much exercise made me overtired; my friend forgot to tell me the location of the party had changed restaurants, meaning I turned up at the wrong one; I was in a position where I had to be polite to someone I wasn't in the mood for. None of these life-threatening events, but added up they made me feel prickly with bad-humour. 
The party (when I got to it) was fun and my bad mood faded, but it was with relief that I hit the sack, feeling the toxic mood and tiredness still in my body. I'll sleep it off, I reasoned, and wake up feeling fine
Cue this morning, and the feeling that all was still not fine. Sometimes you're just going to feel tired and groggy- could be a cold, could be fatigue. Who knows? I figured if I was stuck with a less-than-fine feeling I might as well try to distract it, and I knew the perfect distraction: head up Kingsway to find the perfect Banh Mi. 

Kingsway is Pho restaurants and beauty parlours, coffee shops and dusty little businesses that look as if no one's touched the window displays in years. Generations, even.
Nifty old appliances in the window of Y. Franks
Kingsway is also Little Saigon. Some local merchants were angry when city council re-branded part of Cedar Cottage, but it really is pretty fitting. Vietnamese restaurants, nail parlours, delis and groceries are very prevalent between Fraser and Victoria, which is as far as I walked today. 
As I walked, the weather reflected my mood: sun lurked hopefully, but black clouds kept rolling by. I was alternately glad of my thick jacket and overheated by it, sometimes in the space of a few minutes. 
I love Vietnamese food, and heartily miss living across the street from Le Petit Saigon, where I ate a Number 49 (beef on skewers, grated carrot, daikon and cucumber, vermicelli) pretty much once a week. But in all my life, I've never eaten a Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sub sandwich. Now that I live so near to Little Saigon, how could I not investigate this intriguing combination of French-influenced baking and Asian meats? 
My first stop was Ba Le Deli & Bakery, which is all of five minutes from my house, at an intersection where uber-Hipster coffee, old-school Mexican, Mexi-fusion, East Indian pizza, French cuisine, Caribbean-Japanese diner and more all meet in a glorious multicultural melange. I was all ready to order... and then I saw the Cash Only sign at the till (this would be a common theme all along Kingsway). I told them I'd be back, and started walking towards Victoria, where I remembered seeing a Vietnamese restaurant years ago with such mouthwatering photos of subs in their window that I'd wanted to visit for ages, and never got around to it. 
The stores along this stretch of Kingsway are, for the most part, small businesses that seem to cater to a loyal following and aren't that interested in attracting newbies. Many of the cafes look dark and dusty- they might be making the best food in the 'hood, but you'd never know it from the presentation. I wanted to give them all the benefit of the doubt... but I didn't want to waste my money, either. I kept going, drawn by my memories of the large-windowed and attractive cafe I'd seen years ago. 
Past Cedar Cottage Coffee, where I met my guy 6 months ago (I noticed that Crow Salvaged Goods, an interesting art/furniture store we'd checked out that day, hadn't lasted as long as our relationship, although a check of the internets suggests that it was meant to be a temporary store). Past the Tipper, where I've eaten several delicious breakfasts. Here I was at Victoria... and I couldn't find the cafe of my memories. There were a couple of Vietnamese places (including the infamous and long-renamed Pho Bich Nga), but none of them had mouthwatering photos of banh mi in the window. Either it had closed, or it was under new management. Back to Ba Le for me! 
The clouds came back, making everything look darker and more dramatic. 

I kind of wanted to try the Dragon Lord Cafe, which has a powerful name that doesn't match the cutesy cartoon animals on its awning, but it was closed. Since I was feeling fuzzy-headed and tired, I decided that Vietnamese Coffee, swimming with condensed milk, would cure what ailed me. I dropped in to another cafe that was painted lime-green inside, and ordered one to go. Sadly, I picked the wrong cafe... and the wrong coffee. I forgot to ask for it hot, so I got a cold one, the condensed milk glomming sulkily onto the ice cubes and the coffee bitter. Four bucks wasted. 
Ba Le smelled of fresh bread and I was intrigued by the dumplings, leaf-wrapped rice, and dessert-like things at the till. Since I don't know my way around Vietnamese deli meats and the word "headcheese" does NOT do anything for my appetite, I stuck with a safe sandwich option: grilled pork with veggies... and more coffee. "It's very strong and very sweet," the woman at the till warned me briskly. "Perfect!" I replied, and sat down to wait. It took a while, but when the sub arrived it was everything I'd hoped for: tender pork with just enough sweet sauce, the lightly-pickled trio of carrot, cuke and daikon; cilantro and spicy peppers, packed into a warm, toasted baguette. Heaven. 

I wolfed it down, along with the coffee, which was- as promised- very strong and VERY sweet. It didn't totally wake me up, and whatever bug I'm fighting is still lurking, but I think I've found a Vietnamese treat to rival my old love, the Number 49. And since it's five minutes from my house, and a mere $4.50, you can bet I'll be back. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Just Another Little Gig

You might not think it was much, if you walked by.
Just a quiet night at a local restaurant, music spilling out of an opening door into the darkened street.
Folky and sweet; a small group of listeners at tables, laughter and chatter swelling and hushing again.
But this is my life- these people, this music.
Playing our songs, fingers fumbling at times but harmonies sure and true. Listening to our friends play a set after my band finishes; the crowd grows smaller as it gets later but we stay and watch til the end.
My lover sketches the old-fashioned microphone on stage, his deft fingers turning it into a comical skeleton figure in his notebook. My ex and his girl sit just ahead of us; my mother and my guy's mother are sitting opposite us at the table. Years of love and stories, all around me. An old friend from out of town came through the door earlier tonight, making my jaw drop in delight as I played a song. Other friends came by to celebrate the night with us.
We may have only walked away with a few dollars each; we may have battled a bad sound system and our own musical mistakes but the songs we sing, the friendships in this room, the history we have- it means everything.
Nights like this I remember why I am a musician.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Fear of...Success?

     I've just spent the last couple of days hammering out some plans for a big project with someone I love, and guess what? It was exciting and stimulating and also damn hard and kind of awful, too. 
     Here was the best part: Sitting on the couch, with Gangs of New York playing in the background (because I've never seen it); he was drawing, I was writing. Each of us, working side-by-side in the mediums that best suit us, being creative. 
     Here was the worst part: trying to talk about this project together and feeling a negative response in my body, a physical rejection. Squirmy, uncomfortable tension. What was this? Are we not suited to work together? Nope, don't think that's it. Are we communicating well? Could use some work, but no, that's not it either... Do I believe that the project has potential? Actually, yes. Do I believe that I deserve to spend large amounts of time and money (preferably other people's) on this project? To risk failure in the pursuit of success? Wait: To risk actually being successful?
     Dreaming is comfortable. Imagining is easy. Coming up with the concept for this project is fun. What's not fun, at least for me, is starting to hammer out practical details, especially budgeting. Partly because this drags the project from the safe confines of my "wouldn't it be nice if..." imagination into the arena of actual hard work. And also because to put this much time and belief and hard work into a project that's based around my creative work means that I'm making a bold statement. I'm saying:

"I believe in my work and I believe that it's worth showcasing. I believe that it deserves to be seen and heard by a larger audience and I believe that time and money should be sent in order to make that a reality. Not only my time and money, but that of someone I love, and also the time and money of complete strangers as well. I have not only the creativity to come up with the original concept, but the drive and ambition and hard-headed stubbornness to see it through to completion. I know that it will be hard, that we will run up against stumbling blocks, but we will keep going. And we will embrace success, and strive for it, and not be comfortable with safe mediocrity."

     This is fucking terrifying. 
     I'm realizing that I don't believe in myself deep down as much as I thought. And now I've met someone who thinks that our combined skills will create something amazing, but he's in it to win it, as they say. So goodbye comfort zones and hello risk. It's not that we're betting the farm (we're applying for a grant of sorts, so the risk isn't financial); the risk is in taking the leap of faith that we are worth it. This little fish is going to dip her fins in bigger ponds if she's lucky. And I'm realizing that sharks aren't the problem in these deeper waters (if I may continue with the fish metaphor for a minute). The biggest problem could be me. 
     Here's where uncomfortable self-awareness is a good thing though; at least I can pinpoint the problem. When I feel myself getting tense I know why it's happening and I can take steps to relax. Today that meant going for a run- no better way to work off tension than to tire yourself out. Stop thinking: turn on some hip hop and wear out your muscles for a while. Building good exercise habits also builds more pride in myself: if I can accomplish a workout I can also accomplish other things. Focusing on small goals rather than getting overwhelmed by the big picture is also important. 
     It's a big deal, believing in yourself. And it's never easy. I'm actually really glad that this project has highlighted how much I still need to grow, because I'd gotten a bit complacent about it. 
     Maybe we won't get everything we're hoping for out of this project. But if I don't start believing that it's worth trying for, it'll sputter out like a hundred other half-baked ideas and dreams have done. I want to at least go down fighting this time. And if I commit to that, if I believe that I deserve to put time and energy into my creative work then who knows what could happen? It's terrifying and exhilarating to think about.