The sign for Metro stop 8380 has a smudge on the second eight, which makes it look like a six. Because confirming the number is an eight rather than six takes what seems like way too long with a GPS-enabled phone, I cross the Mekong Supermarket’s lot and pass through the market doors, rattled.
I decide to catch my bearings in aisle 1B. The fish sauces: prawn sauce, shrimp sauce, prawn and shrimp sauce, oyster sauce, and similar combinations derived from what sometimes is simply called fish paste. Any one of them could bring my planned dinner of rice and Chinese wax sausage even more umami. The selection here at Mekong hits a mean between a Viet Wah grand selection and your corner Asian market. I’ve found a fish sauce golden mean. I relax.
I look up to the aisle reader board to see that aisle 1B directs me to Cooking Oils without mention of Fish Sauces. And that the sauces do not merit a shout-out on the board rattles me again.
I approach the register where I finally remember exactly why my friend told me to come here. ‘We have four types,’ one of the owners points at the trays. ‘Pork, chicken, tofu and combo.’
‘What’s the combo?’
‘That’s barbeque pork and chicken. We have tofu for vegetarians. Some people don’t like meat.’
‘Which is the most popular Vietnamese sandwich?’
‘They’re all the most popular!’ I smile and reverence her use of a relative absolute. I ask more questions about the other food impulse buy trays. They hold sweets. Bright colors trapped in coconut and condensed milk heaven. She tells me that it depends on the time of day what is out. There is a method, but she does not have time to explain. The place is busy even at an off morning hour.
She takes me, the depth of the store, to the market’s back wall to see the sandwich preparation station. Everything’s orderly and prepped: pork trimmings, dark meat chicken, tofu, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, cilantro, spiced mayonnaise, and a liquid that could have been Maggi sauce or something else. I am not entirely sure. The cook starts at nine and wraps up the whole operation around five. The owner smiles and returns to the front register.
The counter cook slices, on the horizontal, mini-baguettes, while we chat about which is the most popular. I have not given up on the question.
A regular approaches to ask for a chicken. ‘There aren’t any up front,’ he adds. She already knows that there aren’t. She has not a few minutes earlier finished preparing the chicken. But he wants her to know that he’s not asking for something special. I love this kind of respect and politeness over lunch counters.
She nods and begins to prepare one. Her motion is quick and rugged. Except for bringing the spatula from the mayonnaise. She pauses to milk one dollop from the stainless dish, spreads it evenly across the baguette’s length, and returns the now-empty spatula to the exact position where it began its journey around the whole baguette.
She wraps the baguette in white paper and apologizes. ‘I have to bring it to the front.’ Right. They’ve done this before and he does not protest. And so she walks with her swaddled one carefully to the front. He is in tow.
Now fully steadied, I get a chicken sandwich too, made the exact same way, with the exact same movements, wrapped all in white for my short stay under the protection of stop 8380.