It was September 2005, and I found myself a new resident in Biblical Seminary, which is located in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. There was a renewed vigor in my life as I, for the first time, felt resided in a state other than the one I grew up in. There were trees, and quaint roads, and a permeating stench from the Hatfield Ham factory.
I began to acquaint myself to a new rhythm of life. As a part of this, I started connecting with the other students who lived in the same building. It was they who introduced me to the wonders of Vietnam Cafe.
We went to the car. As my friend drove, rows of houses, small stores, and smiling people passed by. It was a warm invitation extended to me from the heart of Americana. I rested in the visible warmth of this lovely town.
We turned the corner and pulled into a small parking lot. My brain did a double-take. Before me was the jarring sight of a store adorned with Christmas lights. The windows were painted with the words Vietnamese Cafe Restaurant. This storefront broke with the overwhelming sense of this town’s identity. It’s as jarring as diving deep into an unexplored cave, your foot the first to imprint the soil, and find a Welcome To Burger Shack sign hanging from a stalactite. I felt the words, “This does not belong here,” rise from my soul, bypass my lips, and take residence in my brain.
Having never eaten Vietnamese food, I followed my friend’s lead. I ordered what he did: large Pho and Summer Rolls. It was a day of both delight and regret.
The pho came out, savory, steamy, deep soul filling goodness with every sip and slurp. I will not write about this wondrous noodle delight. Instead, I will share about the revelation of perfection. I will tell you about the Summer Roll.
I’ve had many Summer Rolls since this first encounter. They have ranged from imaginings of a mind rife with delusions on the truth of Vietnamese cuisine to good. I’ve had Summer Rolls that disintegrated in my hand like a castle made of sand torn asunder by the Tsunamic waves of too much lettuce and bean sprouts. I’ve had Summer Rolls which maintained structural integrity like a house made on a foundation of rock, but yet was layered with shrimp which added the faintest touch of taste and texture. There have been the rare rolls that included all the right elements, yet their peanut sauce was bland and uninspired.
This, though… this expression of the golden ratio… this embodiment of the Fibonacci number… this is nothing short of the quintessence. It is what Vietnamese Summer Rolls need to be. Each element stands distinct and yet holds hands with each other to form a flavor chain that finds its glue, its cement in a peanut sauce that is a family recipe. When I foolishly asked what it consisted of, I received a short laugh. I stared into the sun and found that I am not worthy of the knowledge of its fire. All I can do is step outside and warm myself in its rays.
When you take a bite, the Summer Roll wrap shows its strength of character. It does not break. It does not fall apart. It stands as strong as a spider web: light, delicate, and yet pound for pound stronger than steel.
The pork and shrimp dance and play with each other. There is no animosity. Neither acts in pride, seeking to outdo one another. They embrace and walt across your palate.
The bean sprouts and lettuce smile and laugh as they exclaim “CRUNCH CRUNCH.” They are the counterpoint peaks to the savory depths.
And the sauce. The sauce, which we fondly referred to as “Crack Sauce” due to its addictive nature… it binds all to itself and yet selflessly gives itself to all. It speaks in unfamiliar tastes and tones and yet it calls forth deep and ancient longings: sweet, savory, salty, sour, spicy, highs, and lows, and excitement, and comfort.
You finish before you even begin, and find yourself tempted to journey all over again.
As I said before, my first time in Vietnam Cafe Restaurant was one of delight and revelation. It was a delight because I found a piece of myself I never knew existed. It was a regret, though, because I pine for what is too far beyond my reach.
Whoever said that it’s better to have love and lost than to never love at all is a fool. I have tasted perfection. I know it is out there. Yet, when I will dine in delight again is unknown. Each false contender, each hollow figure mocks the first, the one, the Vietnamese Cafe Restaurant summer roll.
If you ever find yourself in Telford, Pennsylvania… look for this if you dare. It will invite you. It will bring you revelation of what should be. It will haunt you.
Published by Young Song