The Deep Dive
By Billy Smith
If you want to understand the culture of 10,000 years ago, you need to dig a hole and start looking for broken glass, shards of bone or relics like a spoon or an earring. If you want to know about folks who live outside of your neighborhood, you need to find a dive, an eatery tucked in the corner of a strip shopping center or an alleyway that’s off—sometimes way off—the beaten path.
If you’re struggling with how best to spot one on your own, here’s my objectification of an authentic dive:
• You can’t see it from a highway. If you can spot it from there, it’s automatically out of the dive vernacular.
• It’s not a chain. That means if there are more than two of them, it can’t be a dive.
• The native language of the cook isn’t English (some countrified version of English can qualify here, though).
• The menus aren’t particularly fancy (I prefer the handwritten variety).
You see, food and culture are intertwined and finding both is a heckuva lot cleaner than excavating a muddy hole. I dig them all: bibimbap, chana bateta, pad see ew, biryani, dim sum, papusus, desayuno nica and just about anything you can slide under my nose. Food is a voyage that started the first time my dad cracked open cans of sardines, Vienna sausages and potted meat. Anyone who can eat that triumphal trio can eat anything.
It’s especially entertaining to add a cowboy who rarely ventures off the ranch to your dive adventure, and you’re likely to see something you’ve never witnessed and don’t want to miss. It’ll be a story worth telling, printing and passing along for generations. You’re likely to watch a whole yarn woven on the table before you.
My favorite tale starts when I set out to introduce a cowboy coworker to pho, that large bowl of Vietnamese goodness of rice noodles and spices and protein and vegetables boiling in a broth with steam that seems to rise to the heavens. It’s silky kindness floating in a sea of grandma’s hugs.
One of the things that makes a dive a dive is authenticity, starting with the menu. This one is pictures only. That’s a good sign. Point and serve. I say nothing. The cowboy studies, purses his lips. Analyzes more. Then points.
Our kindly waitress of Vietnamese extraction studies the cowboy like she’s sizing up a zoo animal but isn’t altogether sure of its genus. She considers the destination of his worn index finger. Angles a mischievous grin.
“No good for cowboy,” she said, causing him to snap his head upward to meet her gaze.
“Huh, what does that mean?” he asked.
“Just order something else,” I suggested. He points to another picture of a savory bowl of pho adventure.
“Hmmmm,” she uttered slowly sliding her head side to side, furrowing an impatient brow.
“Nooooooo good for cowboy.”
“Maybe you should just order for me,” the frustrated cowboy said indignantly, handing the slightly built waitress the picturefied menu.
“You ever had pizzle before?” I asked. “Because that’s what you ordered.”
“Yep, different noodles.”
“I don’t even know what pizzle is,” he scoffed.
“Good,” I said. “She saved you. Give her a big tip.”
“You gonna tell me what pizzle is?” he growled.
“I am not,” I said triumphantly. He’ll need to dig that up for himself.