817 West 5th St
Austin, TX 78703
+1 512 659 5744
[Location may vary]
By Des Ayuno
Frank Light is a real foodie. I know because he told me, several times. “I’m a real foodie,” he would say. “It’s hard to hunt down good food here. There’s a lot of crap. But don’t worry – stick with me and you’ll be fine.”
Light’s assessment of Austin as a culinary dump may seem harsh, but we were in town for SxSW, an annual music-biz circle jerk in which 13,000 self-righteous hipsters and major-label relics from around the world descend upon 12 square blocks of the city in order to loudly proclaim that they alone hold the key to the rejuvenation of our deeply troubled industry, to get violently drunk on copious amounts of free beer and to puke in the street. Local restaurants, understandably, grit their collective teeth and focus on hustling as many customers through their doors as quickly as possible. It was only the first day of SxSW and I already felt as though a little part of my soul had shriveled up and died in the fierce Texan sun.
So when, around 10pm, Light suggested we duck out of a tedious showcase – our tedious showcase, unfortunately – in search of what he’d read was the city’s finest bánh mì, I was thrilled. I live in a part of London with a big Vietnamese community and the best pho in town, but for whatever reason, they don’t do bánh mì – I’d only really read about it on the CSB. I was ravenous. I was ready.
We headed across town in search of an elusive van called Me So Hungry. All of a sudden, it was cold. Freezing, in fact. Light was bundled up in an appropriately fleecy coat, and fleet of foot; he shoved through drunken revelers and left them spinning. I twisted my light scarf around my shoulders and scuttled after him. We soon left East 6th behind. The wind howled. We doubled back on ourselves at least twice. I gritted my teeth. Finally, in front of what looked like a giant, glass-fronted strip mall, there was a gleam of light and a small crowd of people. “That’s it!” Light roared.
Me So Hungry was painted a welcoming shade of bright green that reminded me of the walls in my local, Song Que. It looked sparkling clean and radiated warmth and nourishment. The two people who staffed it, probably brother and sister, were not Vietnamese, but the smooth-faced young man who took my order was friendly and quietly expert, running through options of pork or lemongrass tofu, spicy or not, and he would definitely recommend the coriander mayonnaise. Yes, please. $5, please. Thank you. Light and I took our seats at a busy group of picnic-style tables that actually belonged to an unappealing place behind us named the Tiniest Bar in Texas. In front of us, in the Tiniest Bar Garden, three anemic teenagers in hoodies managed to make fire-spinning seem like the dullest way one could possibly spend one’s evening.
The smooth-faced young man left his sister to do the cooking – once we had ordered, he sat down at an adjacent table and drained a beer. He kept a concerned eye on us, though, coming over twice in the next 25 minutes to apologize for the lack of bánh mì, and stuck his head into the van to hassle his sister. By this point, my teeth were chattering. Light nipped into the Tiniest Bar, ostensibly to get us both some tap water, and came back with a beer for himself, which he regarded fondly and then necked. I started to watch the street for passing taxis and, at one point, may have hallucinated that I was curled up in bed watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on my laptop. It was not a promising situation for being served the finest sandwich of one’s life.
When it finally arrived, the bánh mì was simultaneously a triumph and a total letdown. Though piping hot for the first two bites, it cooled quickly in the vicious wind, and its initial boldness of flavor dimmed. Anything that combines barbecued meats, pickled vegetables and coriander is going to be a winner in my book, and the chargrilled marinated pork strips were juicy and generous. But I was confused – this was the standard version of the sandwich, the only option that didn’t involve tofu, so where was the sliced pink luncheon meat, the glutinous pâté, the mysterious and faintly putrefying unidentified meats? Under the top layer of magnificently perky pickled carrots – there may have been a radish or two in there too – lurked strips of what looked like green bell pepper. Some were, I soon realized, but some were chili. Chunks of fierce, burning chili. I nibbled at one, then pulled it out and discarded it, reasoning that I’d rather be able to taste the rest of the sandwich. The bottom half of the baguette was satisfyingly soft, with a crispy crust, having absorbed the juices of the meat, but the top half was chalky and cold. There was nowhere near enough coriander mayonnaise to make its voice heard in such a cacophony of extreme flavors. And I could have eaten two more, but that was probably because I’d eaten nothing but a small packet of Fig Newtons all day. I felt like Oliver Twist in the workhouse.
Light nodded to himself, having just scarfed the two enormous prawn summer rolls he’d also ordered ($6), and barked, “Back to work! Let’s walk off those calories.” It was at least a mile and a half back across town. Five years ago, Light, who runs a respected record label, would have sprung for a cab. Hell, five years ago he’d have phoned the Omni and had them send eight dwarves to carry us back across town on a sedia gestatoria. I sighed and stood up. “Do you know what?” he asked, striding purposefully down the street. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think I have a pretty good idea how we can go about saving this business, you know.”