While I was growing up in California, my food-obsessed Chinese-Vietnamese mother used to make weekly forays into Oakland's Chinatown. (San Francisco being tourist-trendy, Oakland being Chinese people screaming at each other in grocery stores.) One thing she used to get was a type of Vietnamese rice noodle roll.
It's a wide, translucent white, thin sheet of rice noodle folded up into inch-thick rolls. Here's the special bit: mixed into the noodle dough are dried shrimps and chopped scallions. When the dried shrimp are good dried shrimp, intensely flavored and chewy, it's something beautiful. She served it sliced into bite-size pieces, steamed, and topped with sliced Vietnamese sausage (is it pork? is it chicken? do you care?), beansprouts, fresh herbs, and sugared-and-limed nuoc mam, with a healthy squirt of Sriracha chili sauce on top.
Do I miss this food? Yes I do. I thought for sure I would find it in Manhattan's Chinatown. Well, I didn't find it. I looked.
Then a couple of weeks before Christmas, I was shopping on Canal Street when out of nowhere on the corner of Canal and Centre was this sullen-faced lady standing behind a couple of tubs. The first thing I noticed was a pile of fresh beansprouts to my right. (That alone makes me ache. In California, you know, every store's got crunchy beansprouts. I've found that devious New York grocers, when they carry them, soak them in water until they turn gray, slimy and heavy.) I glanced at the tub at my left, and my head began revolving. The noodles were there, a ton of them, and the lady was demanding what I wanted in that sweet way they do in Chinatown where they always look like they'd rather be drinking piss than helping you.
Of course I bought two pounds of noodle. A sour-faced old man weighed them, tied off the plastic bag, and threw it at me. I ran home and snarfed it.
I went to visit my ma for Christmas and told her I'd found these noodles. "Oh yes," she said as if I was stupid (she says everything like this, because she is a Chinese mother), "they have those everywhere."
When I returned to New York, I went back directly to the spot, intending to buy four pounds. Someone had spray-painted green paint over the words "KONG KEE FOOD" on the awning. The storefront was full of cheap satin jipao-style dresses.
I wandered around in a disoriented wonder, looking for the lady with the tub, until it was dark. I eventually found, at Division and East Broadway, plain rice noodles without the shrimp and scallion. But then who cares?
Where has she gone?