One of the places that's been around since Noah landed the Ark is a hole-in-the-wall on Stockton Street: The Little Paris Coffee Shop.
It has been a favourite haunt of Chinatown school kids, residential hotel dwellers, and local working folks for over a generation now, and people in their twenties and thirties nostalgically stop by when they revisit the old neighborhood.
It is exactly as they remember it, but it also isn't. They remember it better than it ever was.
Often it was their first taste of non-Chinese food, and they fondly recall the Vietnamese sandwiches, noodle-dishes, and sweet shloopy puddings.
[Shloopy puddings: tapioca pearls, bean starch globules, or strange-flavour gelatin squiggles in a cold syrup drink, often with coconut cream added. You can eat it with a spoon, or pour it into a glass of ice-cubes. Pandan, grass jelly, soaked basil seeds. Salt plum, longan, or jackfruit.]
For many, it was also their very first experience of being wired to the gills on real coffee - in most places in Chinatown, the coffee verges on repulsive by noon-time, when the cafeteria style percolators have kept it warm for several hours. It's drinkable if thinned down with plenty of milk, but you won't finish the cup.
Vietnamese coffee, on the other hand, is strong and fresh. You actually have to wait for it, as the boiling water was poured into the little drip device just after you ordered it.
Slow coffee, but it speeds you up.
[Coffee: cà phê (咖啡 ka-fei). Iced coffee: cà phê đá (咖啡冰 ka-fei bing). Coffee with condensed milk and ice-cubes: cà phê sữa đá (咖啡奶冰 ka-fei naai-bing ). Hot milk coffee: cà phê sữa nóng (热咖啡奶 yeet ka-fei naai).
Coffee filtering device: cà phê phin (咖啡濾器 ka-fei lui-hei).]
The Little Paris is a neighborhood place. It has a hometown feel, and the regulars know what they want, and what to expect.
For those who left before adulthood, the memories of this place are forever gilded, and their first time back may be disappointing.
They've had the same stuff elsewhere since then, better too. Though at higher price.
Little Paris does not pretend any superiority, and may seem almost pedestrian.
However, if your expectations are not inflated by imprecise recollection, and you accept it for what it is, you cannot be dissatisfied.
The noodle dishes are excellent, the cold meats are exactly what you wanted, and the sandwiches use real Vietnamese baguettes.
Where else in C'town can you enjoy good cup of cà phê sữa đá, scarf down a fresh sandwich, and surreptitiously listen to aunties quarreling?
[Vietnamese baguettes: bánh mỳ (餅麵). Biscuit bread. The dough is made with a mixture of wheat flour and rice flour, resulting in a lighter bread with a crust that benefits particularly from toasting without the interior becoming too moist or spongy.
That's why it's much better.
The regular Vietnamese sandwich, also called bánh mỳ, or bánh mỳ đặc biệt (餅麵特別) contains sliced pork, either liver paté or head cheese, cilantro, sliced cucumber, and đồ chua (sour stuff: daikon and carrots shredded into diluted tamarind with a little fish sauce, sugar, chili flakes).
Sliced green chilies or red hot sauce may be added to taste. Frequently the inside of the baguette is buttered a bit to add flavour.]
You may remember Little Paris from your childhood, when you hurried there from school to get a warm flaky sandwich and a small container of green dark dark green sweet squiggles in syrup, or to scarf down some rice-skin rolls ('gỏi cuốn', or 'món cuốn', using 'bánh tráng' sheets) with fresh shrimp.
Ten of you sat at a six person table, divvying up the goodies that your limited funds afforded, and it was utterly good!
[Sweet snacks: Bánh bò (glutinous rice flour and coconut milk confection), bánh da lợn (steamed pastry of alternating layers made from tapioca flour, rice flour, and various flavourings), bánh đúc xanh (cooked rice flour paste flavoured with pandan), bánh hấp (steamed glutinous flour pastries), chè chuối (banana & tapioca in coconut milk), etc.]
I remember the place from when I lived a few blocks away, and wanted a treat.
Back in those days, for three dollars including tip, I left filled with coffee, sugar, and meat. Oh boy.
And no Northbeach weirdoes were present to be a nuisance.
It's less than ten blocks from the office. Perfect for Saturday lunch.
'Yat go tong yiuk mien-bau, tong mai yat pui Yuet-nam ka-fei, m-koi. Ni do sik.'
一個凍肉麵包, 同埋一杯越南咖啡, 唔該. 呢喥食.
["One 'regular' sandwich ('gelled-meat bread-bun'), one cup Vietnamese coffee, please. Here eating."]
'Yiu m yiu tong, ah?'
'Yiu tong, m-koi.'
["Want cold, if you please."]
'Wah, gam lek-ge tong-wah.'
["Wow, such smart Cantonese."]
That last comment was delivered sotto voce to somebody off-side. It is not uncommon for speakers of Chinese to be surprised when someone who is clearly not related to them is actually able to say a few intelligible words.
[Note: Lek 叻 = 聰明. But also connotations of cool, hip, too clever by half.]
- - - - -
'Ho-m-ho-yi jor, ah?'
All tables were occupied. I sat down at a table with an elderly woman who had ordered a noodle soup dish that contained roast duck, very scrumptious looking. The both of us concentrated on our food and did not talk.
At the table in the back an old codger was being kept company by his daughter or granddaughter while eating noodle soup. He was riotously holding forth.
"Well of course Ah-Fong is sick ('peng-joh lah!'), what did you expect? What did anyone expect? The old devil ('lo sei kwai') is eighty six, that's when you're SUPPOSED to visit the hospital ('yi-yuen') all-time!"
"Him, ah, approximately gone dead already, still all time insists on walking, that sour bitter face very cringe every foot! Can't stand living, too shit-scared to die!"
"And his wife, ah, old bothersome hag! She can't WAIT till the stinky crow-smell passes life! Hope insurance pays her for years of putting up with his bad temper, rotten air! Greedy eyes, hah!"
"Hospital can't stand him either, cure him REAL good, so he never come back!"
With a satisfied clatter of utensils the old man finished eating.
His female relative had not had a bite. Maybe she was treating the old guy.
She got an earful of bad-luck talk for her trouble, poor woman.
The food and conversation cheered him up immensely, though.
He was smiling.
At a table near the door two customers had an exchange with the boss-lady.
"Wah, this coffee NOT good fragrance! Can change?"
"Why? All same, no difference!"
"But it so stink!"
"You not want? Miss, you why order? Big machine!"
Listen, lady, if you wanted good fragrance coffee, you should've ordered the 热咖啡奶 (yeet ka-fei naai), only fifty cents more, ten thousand times better.
The proprietress cut the customer a fifty cent break off the bill, and the woman was happy.
She drank all of her 'so stink' coffee, too.
小巴黎咖啡室 (SIU BA-LEI KA-FEI SAT)
Little Paris Coffee Shop
939 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Tel : (415) 982 6111
Half a dozen types of Vietnamese sandwiches - regular, chicken, barbecue beef, barbecue pork, smashed meatball, vegetarian - iced coffee, chilled dessert-type drinkies. Hot noodle soups, the usual variety you would expect in a Vietnamese establishment, plus one or two more that will surprise you. Cold noodles, and small eats.
Tables for six along the wall, one table that only seats four in the back.
Fresh uncut short baguettes near the front, plastic cups of electric-coloured slooshy stuff on top of the counter, Vietnamese charcuterie in the chilled vitrines. Croissants, also.
Grab a menu and sit down. The waitress will ask you what you want in a moment.
She speaks Cantonese, English also can.
The place is clean, the service quick.
$3.00 - $3.50.
Regular ('stink') coffee:
If you really REALLY want just regular stink coffee, you should come before nine o'clock, when the dust motes dance in the morning sunlight slanting in through the front. The machine coffee is fresh then.
But why not have a drip-coffee anyhow?
If it's that early, you'll need to wake-up.
Hot curry noodle soup for breakfast, cà phê sữa đá, and a seat near the front, so that you can watch the traffic on Stockton Street.
Packed buses slowly edging forward, parents walking their children to Gordon J. Lau Grammar School (劉貴明小學 Lau Kwai-ming Siu-hok) on Clay Street just up from Stockton, delivery trucks blocking the street so that merchandise can be unloaded, taxis honking frantically because some very important customer desperately needs to get to the airport or an equally important yuppie needs to get to a clerical job downtown.
Years ago you might have bought a pack of State Express 555 Virginia straights here, to smoke while you waited for your second cup to drip.
Many Việtkiều (越僑) and VietWah (越華) preferred the taste of the tobacco that they grew up with, and there was a lively trade in smokes from Hong Kong and Canada smuggled in.
Every Vietnamese shop sold non-filter Virginias.
One tin of 555 was cheaper than a pack of American cigarettes.
Far, far better quality too.
And you could still smoke indoors.
I haven't seen 555 in a very long time, several years.
But I had a Vietnamese sandwich only hours ago.
Yeah, I like the place.
Been going there for years.
It's somewhere to come back to.
NOTE: Readers may contact me directly: LETTER BOX.
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.
Labels: FOOD, 唐人街 Chinatown, 市德頓街, 真好食