You tumble out of a van that exceeds the legal capacity by a factor of three or four. The first thing is the dust—thick and mobile. All those trucks you see filled to the brim with loose rocks are coming here to be dumped, tirelessly smashed one by one with large hammers, and ground into the invisible substance floating in the air. Then the sound. Giant tankers incessantly, gratuitously announce their arrival with profound horn blasts. A little kids sets off a firecracker in the middle of the street. A stray dog yelps. Then the heat. All these people, all this movement, all this progress, a sun that cuts seamlessly though mountain air. You feel, in so many ways, at the heart a massive movement. You are at a literal intersection of then and now—people from the past fashioning the future because that is what people from the past do. Women in traditional Baizu dress splash water on rocky dust that congeals into cement and someday into a sidewalk. A chicken darts around a speeding, honking BYD SUV. It’s hard not to feel it.
Then the smell. You follow it a moment—past drying concrete and some badminton-playing kids contemplating a birdie that just landed in it. You know where it’s coming from. It’s in a pot. It’s wedged between a tiny convenience store selling booze and cigarettes and ramen in a box and a stairwell that leads to an oft-empty bar. It’s at a dusty intersection in a dusty mountain town. It’s in Yunnan, China. It is the greatest food in the entire world.
I’ve eaten some things. Tsukiji fish market before sunrise, a quiet taco shop called La Gringa serving simply captivating al pastor with a lime on a hot dry street in Cuernavaca, $3 Banh Mi sandwiches from Dong Phuong bakery in the middle of desolate New Orleans East, a steak so preposterously good at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires that I pondered vegetarianism purely out of respect, the footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki crafted by my local green and yellow clad sandwich artist. Deep in the middle of nights (such as this one) as my feet dangle over icy tiles and my stomach grumbles without reprieve, I think of these things and how impossibly far off they are. And I feel like you feel when your girlfriend says its over. I feel deeply, deeply stomach-broken.
But, every Friday afternoon I squeeze into that van between a slobbering infant and a stare-y old lady and I am taken to the intersection. I get out and follow the smell. I take off my bag and fall onto a foot-high stool begging to be crushed under my weight. There’s a large-mouthed steel cigarette bong resting against my table. A line of thermoses sit under a shelf, hot with water for tea. I glance at the chef, waitress, owner, busser, personality, and possible validator of any and all claims of higher-power. She nods and reaches into a bag of long white strands that look like the transcribed remnants of a Bush-Cheney sit-down. She tosses the strands into a wok, film-thick with what remains of the pleasures of those who once sat in these stools—a well-crisped recent history of culinary perfection. There are two things on the menu—though there is no menu. Er si (thick rice noodles) and Mi xian (thin rice noodles). You may have them fried or you may have them boiled. You may have them in a small bowl or you may have them in a big bowl. Smoke flares up and I get Pavlovian.
There’s an aged and withered man wearing a scuffed blue suit and a newsboy working on a cigarette at the table next to me. His bowl is empty. A young mother watches her infant daughter struggle with the epic historical pairing of evasive noodles and thin wooden sticks. Two middle-aged van drivers sip tea as they pound on the table and complain about the road, the sound of their keys jangling faintly discernible through the dust and commotion. Sometimes you’ll see the county mayor sitting here with his comrades, methodically slurping soup and talking about the high-quality of the road. There’s a sign above the chef displaying a green happy face, a yellow “satisfied” face, and a red sad face. The three faces are paired with A, B, or C. In the box where this particularly establishment’s happy, satisfied, or sad face should be, there is nothing. It doesn’t matter. A scruffy dog scoots out of the kitchen. A, B, C or “high likelihood of sickness and/or death”, it doesn’t matter. Everyone from every corner of the social spectrum can be found at these tables.
A, B, C.
She calls my name and I shoot up. Sitting in the hazy window is a mountain of Er si capped with shredded scallions. I thank her and snatch the dish and set it down on another counter and generously add leaves of sour Chinese cabbage. I return to my stool and drown the noodles in a dose of vinegar. I say grace for the proprietor and begin. The noodles are sticky with oil. They bind together and I lean closer. The flavor is something like salt, sour, spice, heat, grease. The texture sticky and smooth. But, truthfully, like a special book or a transcendent movie or a glass of baijiu or the rice terraces down the road or anything that is incredible in its way, there is no description aside from experience. It is what it is.
I proceed through the mountain and watch it disappear before my eyes. For these few moments at this intersection of future and past, there is now and only now—so too feels the old man and the young mother and the drivers. The final few bites are golden-brown pork strips and scraps of sour cabbage and oily vinegar soaked noodles. Like a great novel that you can’t stop reading but never want to end, I finish them off. It is a flavor rollercoaster with no drops. I ponder the remaining pool of vinegar and grease and weigh the social implications of lifting it and pouring it into my mouth. I lift it and pour it into my mouth. I pat my stomach and rise for the bill.
“Boss, you work too hard.” I tell her.
“Every day, seven days a week.” She says, smiling.
Every day, seven days a week behind a smoky little opening at a hot and dusty intersection, bending and lifting—with only the occasional helper. I think for a moment about the riches she would reap with a shop like this on Canal and Mott.
“You need to take a rest, boss,” I say contradicting my true gastronomic desires.
“No breaks. This is my iron rice bowl. This is my life.” She says, referencing an indelible Chinese concept.
“Well, it’s the best food I know. You’re the best there is.”
“Bah. None of that! I just make noodles for people to eat, Mr. Luo. Today’s on me,” She says as I reach into my pocket.
“Not in a million years, boss.” I hand her a crumpled five and two ones. One dollar and ten cents. That’s like a small bottle of Poland Springs or four gumballs. Shit, I can’t think of anything worth a dollar and ten cents. I’d pay 15 bucks for it if she asked me to.
“You should charge more.” I tell her every time.
“I charge one Yuan more and no one comes. I charge one Yuan less and I go out of business. Seven Yuan is the price.” Hard to believe the initial statement, but I know it’s true.
“Take it easy, boss.” I head back into the dust’.
This is where the best food in the world is. It’s here, lodged in an open stall at the intersection of before and after. Stuck firmly between six and eight Yuan. Caught between a day off and some extra cash. A simple rendition of something that’s been done here for centuries. Some noodles and a lot of oil. Something for the people to eat. A few sticks and a plate. A tiny stool. A newborn child and an old man in his twilight years. You can see it all from here. It’s hard to try to imagine it anywhere else. The reality of what it is, its genesis is so inextricably chained to this small corner. It’s not a gastropub or a hot new chef’s foray into molecular gastronomy. It’s function first with barely an eye to form—here they are the same. It really is the best there is. It is straight-up ambrosial. And it has to be. It’s a labor borne of necessity. It’s a matter of fact. It’s life. It’s the only way it could possibly be.