I‘m so tired of mediocre meals. To that end, Malcolm and I are absolutely going to one of the great restaurants that came up naturally in conversation on Sunday night, when we went to Seng Chai with the others for the last stop in this round of Thai-o-rama tasting sessions. We are going to eat excellent food somewhere in Portland (and write about it) this week, I am determined. We know it’s out there. But not before I talk about Thai food. We need to wrap this up before moving on.
At the end of a quiet weekend, during which we drove deep into the most beautiful late fall Saturday to buy a pine hutch from a man who lived on top of a mountain, read the paper, watched Office Space, ate curry chicken salad and Chinese food I’d rather not mention, it was rewarding to venture into the unknown, to meet up with friends we hadn’t yet met for dinner at one of the many holes-in-the-wall on the makeshift Asia row out on Forest Ave.
First, and most importantly, if you end up at Seng Chai for whatever reason, be sure you are waited on by bubbly, round-faced Masuma. Masuma means “innocent” in Arabic. And she was guileless, enthusiastic, and genuinely sweet as anyone I have ever encountered. Any nubile virgin, who has never known sex or death, can wander winsomely in her father’s garden, singing to birds and fondling the flowers. But a woman who has experienced life – one of fifteen siblings, whose mother died and widowed father chose another wife, with three children of her own, ranging in age from one to eighteen, who is uncertain of her current age but knows without doubt that she was wed for the first time at age thirteen, now navigating the strange cultural waters as a Muslim mother in a secular world, who came from Afghanistan and speaks eight languages, who will never go back home – and still can seem so open and good is worth mentioning. I don’t think she’d mind my disclosing all these fairly intimate details; she’ll tell you herself for the price of a crab rangoon. She’ll be working lunches next week, if you care to meet her. Though perhaps you shouldn’t bother.
I should not dare speak for the group, but the consensus appeared to be noble resignation. We have only participated in the last three events; these soldiers have slunk through some unholy shit, Thai food you wouldn’t feed to your worst enemy – or maybe you are precisely that kind of jerk, I don’t really know you, after all. And yet, they approached this meal with courage and hope, stoically smiling as they packed up their own leftovers into styrofoam containers. I’m making assumptions and you know what that makes me (and you). So I should read in their own words how they felt about Seng Chai, Masuma and everything.
As for us, we were underwhelmed, as much as we didn’t want to be. When our delightful, aforementioned waitress brought a free round of steamy, yummy curry puffs, we were heartened. Alas, it all went downhill from there. Malcolm’s yellow curry looked as appetizing as the cold, wet, open-mouth kiss your great aunt Gert is waiting to bestow on your face this Christmas. When I plucked a bit of duck from the bowl and realized it was nothing but flaccid skin, I left it languishing on my plate, with the remains of my vegetables in lemongrass. This house specialty was predominantly brown and slightly spicy. I did manage to swallow every single golden fried tofu pyramid that had soaked up sauce, so not to worry, my caloric needs were met. But at the end of that effort, I didn’t have the will to continue.
I had started with the tom kar gai, which was a small bowl, no mushrooms, weakly tinted pink with peppers and which came floating with four white bites of dishwater chicken. You know dishwater chicken, don’t you? It’s as if a cook lined the bottom of the kitchen sink with poultry, proceeded to fill the basin with very hot sudsy water to wash the dishes and spoons and when it was drained, ta-da! grayish white breasts and thighs, thoroughly cooked without enthusiasm. The broth wasn’t bad. But I would rather eat a hard candy from the bottom of Aunt Gert’s purse. Malcolm’s “Kat Tong Thong,” an adorable appetizer of chicken and corn cups, was gross. Masuma helpfully explained that it wasn’t very good, and she wasn’t sure why he had ordered it. So we sat back and drank Singha, and took in the mostly charmless scenery. The company was warm, teasing and laughing and of course talking food. And you know how I feel about darling Masuma. For those reasons I am glad we left our comfortable apartment on a Sunday night. For better or worse, the social aspect of eating out often is more edifying than the food itself. Next time, I’m going to Bresca.