Photograph by Jonathan Michael Castillo, from the series “Immigrant Owned.” Courtesy the artist and Samuel Maenhoudt Gallery
A Lesson in Acceptance
By Bryan Washington
Maybe twenty minutes from my apartment in Houston is a bánh mì shop called Nguyễn Ngọ. I love how its door always hits me on the way out. I love the voiceless Mariah Carey tracks tinkling in the foreground of steaming pork. I love the crunch of each baguette, smeared with ground protein, intertwined with cilantro and chiles. I love the way that each sandwich’s yolk runs down my mouth, and the neighborhood lady who points to the napkins at the counter, a little sternly, while shepherding her two boys under the table as they kick at each other’s heels—the thing is that she didn’t have to, and that is a form of love, too.
But lately, the restaurant’s been cleared out. A week into Houston’s quarantine, the tables were simply cast to the side. The following week, they were collapsed and set against the wall, stacked across the tile like textbooks. And from the third week onwards, they’ve simply disappeared, replaced by tape markers indicating where the staff would like you to stand. The register itself is surrounded by a sort of boundary. The window peeking into the kitchen has since gained a set of curtains. Music still trickles from the speakers above us, and the same faces occupy the lobby—but the patrons have thinned. Folks take care not to linger. When we make eye contact through our masks, we’ll nod, just once, inflecting our voices to amplify our expressions. I went on smiling for weeks until I realized that it hardly mattered—no one would see it anyway.
The pandemic has had me wondering about the nature of being a regular. It’s an anomalous notion (because at what point, really, are you a regular?), especially in a city as food-centric as Houston. By most counts, Houstonians eat out more than any other American city’s residents—partly, probably, because the cost of doing so seldom breaks the bank; and partly, probably, because the options our city presents are largely unparalleled stateside. But in a moment when the very nature of physical space is being redefined, where and how we choose to spend our time has taken an even more pronounced role in our lives: that decision not only affects your immediate situation, but the reverberations conjure third- and fourth-order consequences.
Grabbing take-out in the wrong room could infect you, your partner, and your kids. A quick sojourn for coffee up the block could land you in an emergency room several weeks after finishing your brew. Or maybe you’ll infect someone else, sitting nearby, or posted up behind the register, or vaping a few feet away from the entrance. Maybe you’ll get lucky the first and second time, only to strike out on the third. Maybe you’ll skirt the virus entirely. It’s hard to define the terms of a gamble when the gamble itself hasn’t been clearly defined.
But being a restaurant’s regular, whatever that looks like to you, even in the midst of a pandemic, is still a beautiful thing. Even if that dedication means never actually stepping foot in the establishment at all, let alone eating a meal there.
Maybe it would help to define what being a regular, much less in a pandemic, can mean.
Sometimes, being a regular means knowing there’s a certain interaction that’ll occur at your spot. Sometimes, it means knowing that there won’t be any interactions at all, and that you’ll be left to your own devices. It could mean chatting with a favorite host, catching up on some mundanity or another. Or maybe you just like sitting in the second booth from the back of the restaurant, by the bathrooms, because you’re a little infatuated by how the light bounces off the windows beside them. It is a gift, in this country that would always like you to be screaming at everything—from inequity to infrastructural maladies to impunity to corruption—to comfortably, consistently, have the opportunity to shut the fuck up and simply exist. Being a regular, at its best, gives you a space to do that.
This is hardly the first time our restaurants have had to navigate the whims of the world. Houston is at the front-end of disasters exacerbated by climate change ravaging the Gulf’s entirety. And between lower- and upper-case hurricanes, local restaurants found themselves having to adapt to emergency-style circumstances—often without warning or ample guidance or legible roadmaps. For some, that means amending menus, catering exclusively to foods that could survive a drive home; and for others, it means accommodating the communities in their immediate vicinity, delivering and volunteering and assisting the neighborhoods that they can: sometimes, that means drive-through barbeque, and other times it’s a wine list catered to the needs of a cul-de-sac’s denizens. For some establishments, meal kits have been the move—serving seven dishes for a meal, dispersed throughout the week, several days out of the month. But the through-line from neighborhood to neighborhood—whether you’re in the newly moneyed Montrose or the glossy roads of Midtown, or alongside the strip malls construing Westheimer’s sprawl, or in the suburbs flowering just north of the city—is the city’s collective sense of urgency, concentrated into one of the few things that consistently crossed its economic and cultural boundaries.
Eating out is one thing. Eating out with abandon is a Houston thing. Gluttonously, unapologetically, with no decipherable pattern or overarching preference. And over the years, the city has practiced doing that, from disaster point to disaster point, in moments both low and high. The blunt force trauma of quarantine has shocked the system, here as elsewhere, but it wasn’t long before restaurateurs and residents alike looked for ways to adapt, picking at the seams in an attempt to conjure attempts at normalcy, even if only in this particular avenue. Despite everything—or in spite of everything—everyone had to eat. The question was never whether it would continue, but what that would look like going forward.
I could bore you with all of my spots (we all have them), and the ways in which Houston’s dining scene pulled me together as a person. But if you wanted to know, I’d start with the staples: there was the tiny izakaya in Katy, when I was a kid, where my family ordered take-out a few nights just about every week, and the waitresses coaxed me to count in Japanese on my fingers, laughing at my pronunciation. There was the Jamaican spot out in Alief that we’d pass through, after our haircuts, to pick up beef patties for the rest of the family, where the A/C never worked and the tile was always slick but the beef patties were well worth enduring every consumer grievance imaginable. And there was the Taiwanese donut shop across from my high school, where we skipped class to talk shit and throw stones at the neighborhood trees, and the proprietors were more than aware of our bullshit but they gave us discounts on donut holes anyway.
Eating out in Houston is an exercise in acceptance. Someone who probably doesn’t look like you—whether that’s the waitstaff, the back of the house—is letting you into their home. There’s an implicit contract you’ve both agreed to, before we even get to the question of the food. At this one cantina in the Heights, where I used to live, the venue’s visibility recently catapulted from an average attendance to a prominent one after yet another round of gentrification, but a few of the bartenders still made a point to say “hey” whenever I passed through. I knew that, when I visited the taquería across from my gym, the hosts would stare at me and my horrible Spanish, but one of the waitresses would still call me mijo, once, before I left, and that exchange would be enough to center me for the week.
And our relationships with physical spaces are, at their best, dynamic: when I passed through what used to be my noodle shop, a smoky joint in Spring—for the first time in years, the matron wondered loudly, in front of my boyfriend, about the whereabouts of an ex she’d met exactly once nearly a decade ago. And it was mortifying, another day, to bring a touring author to my other Chinese spot, only for this person to act like an entire shithead, shaming me into apology, and course-correcting my hosting habits for the foreseeable future. (So maybe being a regular also means having a profound sense of shame, a commodity in the design of most transactions in our culture.)
Before this year’s dine-in ban, the regulars at my neighborhood diners and cafés in Chinatown found themselves passing through less regularly. Those of us that could make it out might exchange a knowing nod. Sometimes, we brought friends. But, more often than not, we just brought ourselves.
In mid-March, my regular Mexican spot in the Heights announced that they were closed until further notice. Before the question of take-out even arose, a spot I frequented for broken rice was empty, with a sign written in Vietnamese on the window. If you walked along the strip, every restaurant beside it donned its own signs on the door: the language changed from building to building, but the sentiment remained the same.
A few weeks into the quarantine, I passed through a local Singaporean spot with my boyfriend. The guy behind the counter squinted when he saw us, and then he blinked himself awake, smiling. The room was empty except for the three of us, and the din of local news played on a television just in front of the kitchen. After we made our orders, the dude taking them asked how we knew the restaurant had opened: it was their first day back, weeks after the city had transitioned to take-out only. He said that they’d thought most folks would be too scared to eat out, let alone in an Asian restaurant.
But maybe not here, he said, grinning, shrugging his shoulders as he passed our receipts.
But as ever, despite everything, the city’s collective suffering is hardly equal. The food deserts plaguing the city are still largely devoid of options of fresh food, if not even more so now. The area’s more moneyed sectors, inside of the city’s inner-loop, began selling out sit-in reservations the moment it became legal to do that. As in every other part of the city, differences in the virus’s effects across demographics have been pronounced: the majority of fatalities within the Greater Houston Area’s city limits have been Black and brown. And confirmed cases have only continued to rise.
About a week ago, I passed through a coffee shop not too far from my apartment: nowadays, I live in Bellaire, in the crux between the nearby university and the neighboring suburb of Alief. Where the latter is deeply diverse, racially and economically, the former is largely characterized by affluence, and the aloof-ish ideology that so often accompanies it. In late May, where whole swaths of Alief, from barbershops to grocery stores to gas stations to restaurants, insisted, if not demanded, that their denizens move through their spaces with caution, more than a handful of the city’s more moneyed areas abandoned those same precautions the moment city-wide restrictions began to lift. Face masks became occasional, and then sparse. Hand sanitizer was scarce. Folks stood in groups of threes, and then tens, and chunks, plugging doorways and congregating around dining rooms.
On this particular morning, I passed a masked Black guy standing outside of the shop, tapping at his phone. Inside, a group of nine or ten white patrons stood around the register, laughing and elbowing each other as they made their orders. This guy and I were the only pair among them in face masks.
He and I exchanged a look, and I took my place in line behind him. We stood there until the crowd slowly trickled out—and they laughed in the parking lot, tugging at each other’s sleeves.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: restaurants are where life is lived. They’re where I’ve lived my life. If we’re willing to sacrifice those venues, then we’re willing to sacrifice our cities as we know them: whether it’s the tiny hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian diners, or the countertop Honduran food trucks, or the Filipino burger joints lining food halls and the back-alley Vietnamese vegan restaurants and the Black fish fries, eaten across picnic tables, manned from the windows of churches. In Houston, most days out of the week, I’ve found myself in the company of family that wasn’t my own, that’s adopted me nonetheless. That sentiment, at least, hasn’t been tarnished by COVID. But the affection and the connections are changing forms, thoroughly and rapidly: most won’t survive. Others might find a way. But what they’ll look like, in the end, is anybody’s guess.
Restaurants bring humanity to a city. They’re central to my memories. And, like any memory, sometimes they glow and sharpen and expand: for instance, my first meal at Nguyễn Ngọ actually had nothing to do with me at all. It came on a recommendation, in the weeks immediately after Harvey. The city was still vibrating from the concurrent devastation. The roads themselves still spat water from their crevices.
We were shrugging off a long Saturday night, on a Sunday morning, with coffee from Lee’s Sandwiches in the strip mall saddled across from Bellaire’s Hong Kong Market, just west of Houston proper. The foot traffic stood at its apex, and you could hardly breathe for the humidity, and the exact solution at that moment could only have been an egg bánh mì. I’d just moved to the area from across town. My usual spot in mid-town was fifteen miles too far to remedy hanger. And when we stepped into Nguyễn Ngọ, the cafe wasn’t really busy at all, but it had the din of glossy ’90s karaoke backing tracks spinning in the background. So I ordered a sandwich. Took two bites. And promptly fell in love.
I went back a week later. And also the next week after that. And then, eventually, twice a week, as the weeks began to slide into months, and the restaurant’s fabric weaved its way into my life. The owners started nodding when they saw me. I figured out which tables I could rest my elbows on without embarrassing myself. The same faces waiting for their sandwiches and coffee smiled back or stared blankly or laughed my way, while other folks dipped in and out without looking up from their cells. The folks in the back of the house (many of them Latinx) started nodding when I placed my order—which was predictable, at this point, and as warm as the hug at the end of a long day: a baguette sandwich with extra pâté and jalapenos, and also two runny eggs, thanks, I appreciate you. And so, in this way, I became a regular. The restaurant’s another home. I will likely return to Nguyễn Ngọ, to all of these restaurants, even if only in memory, until the day I die. Though I hope it won’t come to that. This is, I think, a small thing on the scale of this pandemic’s devastation. But an important one. One that’s no less worth fighting for.
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