On a particularly brisk Saturday afternoon, in front of a supermarket and looking out serenely at a busy parking lot, two Buddhist monks -- head shaven and bodies all draped in faded robes from shoulder to bare feet -- stand still, calm, and unwavered as oblivious pedestrians come and go, mostly ignoring their presence.
A few paces down the sidewalk, a near-toothless old woman in a conical straw hat hawks CDs and newspapers out of a shopping cart. Inside one store, there's a chaotic scene as a glut of people wave with their fists clutching money, trying to get the attention of someone behind the counter so that they can put in their orders for a banh mi sandwich. Further down, there are dimly lit, dank-looking pho shops, where hungry faces hunch over bowls, slurping up seemingly endless streams of noodles into their mouths.
Where were we? Westminster's Little Saigon, of course.
Our destination is a few more doors down. And when we get there, there are two women outside, each from competing stores, yelling at the top of their lungs like auctioneers or snake-oil hucksters, trying to do anything they can to charm passersby into stopping in and buying their wares.
What are they selling? Fruit and produce indigenous of Southeast Asia -- all that is weird and wonderful but are otherwise hard to come by the further north you go from the equator.
Some are piled in neat pyramids. Some hang above your head in pre-weighed plastic bags. Others, like jackfruit and durian, are both safely kept at waist level. These infamous fruits, sporting spikes as menacing as medieval weaponry, have been known to kill men when they make their free fall from trees.
Our quarry? Rambutan, which is a fruit that is as weird as the rest of the lot, perhaps even weirder. As "rambut" means hair in Indonesian, the golf ball-sized are indeed hairy -- furry, even -- resembling the dangling testicles of a red, alien creature.
And since they're in season, we spot the things right away. But only this store had it in stock, and therefore the monopoly.
As we made our way in, we feel our shoes stick to the floor like it was covered in old gum, a result of all the accumulated dripped juices from all the fruit that has passed through these walls.
"How much?" I ask.
"Seven dollars a pound", one woman answers.
Steep, I thought.
I gather there's room for haggling, and they probably expect it, but I'm not much of a haggler, so I agree on the price and buy two pounds worth. After all, it was only a week earlier that I actually spotted rambutan at Ralphs (that's right, Ralphs) and they were selling them for a $1 a piece. Except those were sad representatives (CLICK HERE to read about that).
But these? These were the real thing. Finally!
Last year during a trip to Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore, we rediscovered them and searched them out like addicts on a drug-addled binge, buying them up from every street corner, every supermarket, where ever we found them, and then gorging ourselves back at the hotel.
Same as before, we took our locally bought bounty home and ate them with as much gusto. We dug into each fruit with both thumbs after starting them off with a slit made by knife. And like a Russian nesting doll, two hemispheres split and separated.
Inside revealed a white translucent flesh. We grab them by our front teeth and pop the whole thing into our mouths, scraping the juicy meat from the almond-like pit. The texture of rambutan, for those who haven't had it, is exactly like a lychee. But the flavor is tangier, livelier, just like the Little Saigon street scene I bought it from.
Ba Tu Trai Cay Ngon
8920 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683