– It was early afternoon at the Korean luncheonette when I realized with a sudden sunken feeling that my credit card was not where it was supposed to be; namely, tucked neatly into the upper-right corner slat of my billfold.
I tried to recall the last time I’d used the card, always a low exercise for reckless spenders such as I’ve become.
After wringing out my brain and seeing price tags splash all across the floor, it dawned on me that the last time I’d trotted the mare out was at Sunday brunch with the Germans in Williamsburg. I promptly called the restaurant and felt acute relief when the man on the other end said he had her and she was fine and contented, that it happens even to the very best, his voice honeyed with easy reassurances.
So it was I found myself not on my typical commute home through sullen Queens but hurtling southward on a downtown-bound express A train instead, hands like claws pinched around the straps as the iron horse bypassed mere mortal local trains at unfathomable speeds. At 14th Street I stumbled off for a transfer to the 8th Avenue L. My knuckles gradually regained their high color. Once aboard, we were in for a moon shot east, a dip below the fetid East River (which clogged my ears by not my nose), and at last a glimpse of Bedford Avenue at night.
I picked up the card without further incident, tipped my cap. I was glad for the fair gratuity we’d left. These things have a way of coming around to those who stiff.
To break up the long walk home I ducked into Xi’an Famous Foods. I’d maintained my vegetarian diet for a full week and it was high time to spoil all that good work.
My favorite thing to eat there—really, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted—is the Mount Qi Pork Hand-Ripped Noodles in Soup. Xi’an sits in the foothills of the Qin Mountains in northwest China. The range is broadly known as the Qinling. Xi’an historically has harbored an Islamic population, and the food prepared there reflects its history. It doesn’t taste like what we think of as traditional Chinese food. The soup I love is sour and spicy and hot, full of cumin and other exotic spices. Small chunks of pork belly, half fat, half flesh, float at its surface, jiggle when held aloft with chopsticks, ready to deliquesce under your tongue. Chives and boiled cabbage crowd the stock’s depths.
The restaurant doesn’t have tables, but shiny metal benches are set into the outer walls. Short wooden stools round the perimeter. Everybody eats in silence, like monks. It’s because you have to keep your mouth close to the bowl, lest the long noodles slip off your chopsticks and plop into your soup, provoking an oily splash. But if you keep your mouth close, the soup won’t land on your shirt. Plus, the broth is spicy enough to make your nose run. You’ll need a lot of napkins. So even though you want to talk to your neighbor about how unbelievably good the food is, even when she’s a cute girl, you don’t, because your nose is a hose and the spices are already turning your belly bellicose. To eat Mount Qi Pork Noodles in Soup is to act alone. Better to picture yourself high on that mountain cap, the dull green Xi’an valley laid before you like a faded rug, smoke rising from houses in the early morning, the fat sows grazing, the smell of soup greeting you on the wing of a sudden gust of wind.