Hsu, fritters, and a Filet-O-Fish. Illustration: Maanvi Kapur
Hua Hsu has a wine fridge under his desk, but there’s no wine. “It’s water and seltzer,” he says, and he keeps it close because, when he’s on his own, he’s often trying to work through eating: “I figure I might as well just get a bunch of stuff done so I can enjoy the downtime with my kid or my friends.” That’s not to say he’s particularly rigid or regimented in his approach to eating, especially if he’s traveling, as he was much of last year in support of his memoir, Stay True (which is out in paperback this week). “I had a per diem,” he says. “So sometimes I would see if I could eat as little as possible until 5 p.m. and then spend the full per diem on, like, a huge sushi dinner.”
Saturday, September 2
I tend to eat in extremes. When I’m by myself, I snack and graze, prizing efficiency over experience. I’ll eat leftovers cold, with my hands, over the sink, rather than heat something up just to huddle over it at my computer. I’m always convincing myself that I can get by on a handful of roasted nuts, some figs, and coffee. If I do bother cooking something for myself rather than for other people, it’s still function over flavor. For example, scrambled eggs, but with an entire box of arugula forcibly wilted and folded into it, finished off with enough turmeric (because I read that it was good for you) to give the whole thing a taste I can only describe as “kinda dry.”
Thankfully, I was not alone this weekend. We started having vaguely bacchanalian Saturday dinners with two other families in 2020, and loyalty to the pod has been one of the only constants over the past three years. I’ve known some of these people for upwards of 25 years. But what ties us together is not shared memories of the ’90s Bay Area zine scene or early-aughts East Village diners. It is that our children like playing together. Even with the occasional tears, they are fiercely devoted to one another. On this past weekend before the kids returned to school, the nine of us were in Woodstock. I went running in the morning and, on the way home, noticed a sign for a garage sale with “400 LPs.” I casually sped over. I found some records as well as an old typewriter — my son has always wanted one. I didn’t have any cash, so I promised I would come back later for these things.
My friend Sonjia will often ask, “What should we have?” and then proceed to whip together an incredible spread of food for us. On this morning, it was sourdough pancakes, which intersected perfectly at crispy and chewy. The pod went out for a longer-than-expected bike ride, after which we were too weary to decide where to go for lunch. Sandwiches nearby was the sensible option. But we decided to take our chances and go to Phoenicia Diner, which serves comfort food for city people in an aggressively vintage setting. Luckily, the wait for nine was just a few minutes and, as soon as the kids took the edge off with some juice, we were thankful to not be eating sandwiches. I ordered something called “stuffed hash browns,” because I will always order the special. It was a sheet of hash browns folded over cheese and bacon, resting on heirloom tomatoes and a fried egg. I begged my son to ask one of the other kids for some of her pancakes. They were as good as I remember.
On the way back to Woodstock, I finally made it back to the garage sale. They had assumed I’d never return, and sheepishly helped me find the records they had filed back in the “sell” pile. I showed them just how wrong they were by buying even more things — Sonjia found a nice eggbeater; my wife, Carol, wanted some embroideries and a vase. I’m still haunted by the silver peanut-shaped “nut jar” I left behind. The rest of the day was spent swimming and reading. There was no prevailing will for dinner, so we had a variety of leftovers, labeled as “elevated girl dinner.” My friend Eric said it had the randomness of an Asian hotel buffet: two falafel balls, some old salad, assorted freezer breads, about a quarter of a cheese plate, a thing of tinned fish, Champagne, and ice-cream sandwiches. My wife, who prefers to eat actual meals, made dumplings. We finished some leftover wine from the great Wild Arc Farm. Everyone had After Eight mints before bed.
Sunday, September 3
I was hoping to start the day with some oatmeal. But we picked up some bagels from Moonrise Bagels, a place in Woodstock that makes “stuffed bagels”—exactly what it sounds like but probably better than you’d think. It appeals to the Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives side of me. We cut them into wedges and, despite initial skepticism, curiosity got the best of everyone. They all got eaten.
We went to some local yard sales. To make myself seem less desperate for wanting to go back to one of them for something I left behind, I volunteered to drive out to Mount Tremper and pick up lunch from Harana Market, a Filipino deli and market. We got a few orders of patis fried chicken — among the best I’ve ever had — and tofu sisig, a dish of tofu, peppers, chiles, and onions tossed in what they call a citrus “cream” sauce, served over steamed rice. I have no frame of reference to judge how authentic it was, but it was wildly good.
We were in a state of collective denial that summer was ending, so we buried our woes in excess, with an early dinner at Silvia, probably one of my favorite restaurants. It used to have a few Korean things on the menu, like a great bulgogi ssam at least nine people wish they’d bring back, but they’re more firmly “New American” nowadays. We started with cocktails and mocktails, oysters, some kind of scallop appetizer (which often devolves into a discussion of how, up until my late 20s, I thought scallops were the adductor muscles of what I assumed to be enormous clams), and pita, which was served with whipped butter, honey, and radishes. The pita was ridiculously good. I watched my son scarf it down, reflecting on how, at his age, I’d only ever eaten bread prepackaged in plastic. We shared a couple salads (is there anything more refreshing than a wedge salad?) and some entrées (pork chops, trout, chicken schnitzel for the kids). I often prefer starters to mains, but Silvia is the rare place where every single thing is great. I had the Turkish Delight panna cotta for dessert. Perfect — not too sweet.
Monday, September 4
A bear got into the trash overnight, so part of the morning was spent picking up old cartons of butter, soggy tissues, and moldy peach pits in the woods, which provided a really effective appetite suppressant. Driving back to the city, we stopped at McDonald’s, which I briefly convinced my son only existed in New Jersey. I find it somewhat reassuring that for all the thoughtful, vigorously “natural” food in his life, my son still loves the same junk I did when I was his age and we knew no better. He had his usual nuggets and fries. For the millionth time since 1995, I resisted the cheeseburger and had a Filet-o-Fish (or “Fish-o-Filet,” as my parents used to call it) because it seemed comparatively healthy.
Thoughts kept returning to the bear, and then to the short-lived Fox show Man vs. Beast. Upon returning to Brooklyn, my son and I ran some errands, including grocery shopping for the new school year. He is entering third grade, and I’m starting my second year teaching at Bard College after 15 years at Vassar College (i.e., why I spend so much time upstate). He needed new fruit snacks, and I had to replenish my array of desk snacks for when I’m too lazy to leave the cluttered embrace of my office. I bought some breakfast bars, energy bars (the kind that say something like “An egg white, four apples, seven blueberries, and NOTHING MORE”), a few tins of sardines and mussels, and some Japanese gummies for office-hours visitors.
I was cruising along in my personal goal to eat very little the rest of the day. I briefly contemplated making the week’s batch of oatmeal and having some for dinner. But then some friends we hadn’t seen in a while came over, and my son cleverly offered to make their daughter a snack plate full of sweet things he actually wanted to eat. He invited them to stay for dinner. We ordered from Han Dynasty because it was one of the only delivery places that was open on Labor Day. I was craving hot white rice. I insisted on ordering Taiwanese sausage with slivers of raw garlic; we also had some noodles, scallion pancakes (a.k.a. “Chinese pizza” to my son), and spicy fried fish. Our friends both work in law and introduced me to the phrase belt and suspenders, or legal speak for being extra. I resolved to try and use it in conversation this week.
Tuesday, September 5
For the fifth day in a row, I intended to start the day with oatmeal. But I ended up losing my appetite packing lunch for my son, who was going to be in summer camp for the day. Other than a cup of coffee, I hadn’t eaten anything until around 1 o’clock, when I was running errands in Manhattan. If you were confined to only eating at restaurants on a single city block, which block would it be? For a while, my answer was East 10th between First and Second, where you could get Japanese curry, sushi, shabu shabu, and even dessert. But nothing on the block, at that moment, spoke to me. My hunger tipped over to that zone where I was less fixated on eating anything than eating exactly what I was craving. In moments like these, I’d rather continue walking and eat nothing than settle for a B+ slice.
I realized what I needed, and I ended up at Sundaes and Cones, one of the city’s truly underrated ice-cream spots, and had an absolutely perfect lunch: Orange Creamy — its take on a Creamsicle — in a cone. I was so pleased with myself on the subway ride back to Brooklyn. No longer famished, I decided to grab an onigiri with kombu from Midoriya, a Japanese grocer, that I could eat while walking home. I’d intended to have a green tea, until I remembered that I had drank thousands of bottles of the stuff and only felt satisfied once or twice. I opted for a melon soda.
I foresaw a future where everything I bought at the store the previous day would go bad, so I roasted oyster mushrooms and shallots, threw in a box of spinach at the end, then tossed the results in pasta with some butter and cheese. My son had some chicken nuggets, which is what he has 90 percent of the time. I fully anticipated eating a few heaping spoonfuls of pasta or maybe just some figs for dinner. Then my wife showed up with leftovers (pasta, skate with lemon and capers, grilled mushrooms) from Via Carota, which I proceeded to eat cold, before realizing how disrespectful it was to one of the city’s great restaurants. I microwaved everything for about 20 seconds, because I lacked the patience for it to actually get hot, and I packed my pasta to go.
Wednesday, September 6
This was my first day of classes, so after dropping my son off at camp, I drove a couple hours up to Bard. I ate my leftover pasta in my office and thought about Via Carota. Our division had a meeting and, because it was so early in the semester, it featured a morale-boosting spread of cheese, fruit, and pastries. I drank a lot of hot coffee and slowly worked on an oatmeal cookie, which is not my favorite kind of cookie but always seems the most reliable in catering-type situations. I had an hour before my class, and my office was unbearably hot. I suddenly remembered that during the last week of the previous semester, I’d bought Popsicles for one of my seminars, leaving the extras in the faculty fridge upstairs and telling my colleagues they were always welcome to help themselves. I was so thankful to old me for doing this. There was one pineapple Popsicle left, which I ate on a bench outside.
I taught my seminar in the afternoon. I always prepare a lot for the first day and then forget to do very basic things, like introduce myself or explain the course rationale. As an ice-breaker, I asked the class what their favorite foods were, and the choices were so specific and evolved (ceviche, moules frites, “roast chicken with schmaltzy cabbage”) that I instantly regretted not packing anything for dinner and thinking a fig bar would suffice. After class, I rummaged through my desk snacks for an energy bar. I ate some crackers and a tin of smoked mussels, which somehow left me even hungrier. Most weeks, I’d stay upstate and be back on campus the following day, but I had to take a late Amtrak back for a flight in the morning.
Thursday, September 7
After a few hours of sleep, I was out the door again to fly to the Bay Area for an event that night. I brought a yogurt, which I ate as quickly as possible in line for the TSA, as well as my leftover pasta and a small Ziploc of walnuts and dried figs. I think I ate everything I brought with me during our first hour in the air, then spent the rest of it drinking coffee and eating Biscoff cookies, which only taste good while on a Delta flight.
Whenever I am back in the Bay Area, at my parents’ house, I spend a ridiculous amount of time rummaging through all my things from the first 20 years of my life. They no longer live in my childhood house, but they brought a ton of my old crap with them. I immediately changed into an old Spinanes T-shirt. I put on an old cassette a friend made called “Pleez Step Into My Jungle.” I imagine a day when my California things — old elementary-school poetry, high-school newspapers, music magazines from 1991 to 1999 — will be reunited with my New York things.
My mom cobbled together a lunch of leftovers from Din Tai Fung and some hong shao rou, or red-braised pork belly, that she makes whenever I come home. She’s fond of portion control— we often eat dinner on plates the size of a saucer — and she has all the health-conscious beliefs typical for people of her generation: cold drinks upset your equilibrium, you should always end each meal by swinging your arms in front of the TV, desserts should never be too sweet (she’s actually right about this one), always keep coffee beans under your bed (this might be specific to us). But in the name of journalism, she would indulge my whims during this visit. We ate on medium-size dishes.
I was home for a reading from my memoir, Stay True, as part of a visiting author series run by San Jose’s Center for Literary Arts. Stay True is mostly set in the Bay Area, and doing events back there is always a bit of a trip. After lunch, I drove to downtown San Jose to meet my old friend and former high-school-debate partner, Harish, who was coming to that night’s reading. He steered me toward a Philz and I got a mint mojito. Outside, a few kids had set up a P.A. and were crunching through some indie rock that can only be described as “angular” — not something you see so much anymore. We were so enchanted that I was nearly late to my first meeting of the afternoon.
After a craft conversation with students, some San Jose State faculty members took me to dinner at Mezcal, a Oaxacan restaurant downtown. I had the Oaxacan enchiladas, which are apparently deconstructed, and the table shared a thing of guacamole, which had an impressive degree of heat. My interviewer that night, the author Vanessa Hua, brought me some of my favorite snacks, Huang Fei Hong Sichuan pepper peanuts. A mix of old friends from high school and KSCU, where I used to DJ, came to the event that night. It was fun. Whenever I am back in the South Bay, I try to have as many apple fritters as possible from Donut Wheel, a 24-hour spot in Cupertino that I’ve been going to ever since I was a child. I’ve always loved apple fritters, even more so now that I can rarely find them in doughnut shops in New York. My college roommate, Anthony, met me there, and we hung out outside, watching all the young night owls, wondering who they were.
Friday, September 8
My friend Sean and I drove up to Berkeley to eat at Steve’s Korean B.B.Q., one of the restaurants that anchors the Durant Food Court. It’s classic, entry-level Korean food, from a time when we valued quantity over quality. The typical college student’s palate seems so much more refined than in the ’80s or ’90s. There are no longer places around campus that just serve undifferentiated “Chinese food.” Everything’s region specific; everyone’s got their own specialty.
As much time as I’ve spent thinking about the past, there are certain lines I won’t cross. I still wear clothes from 1993, but I’ve never had any desire to go back and revisit things I used to eat in 1997. The Durant Food Court was heaven during our first weeks of college, but it seemed dingy by the time we were juniors. Steve’s was … fine. Better than I expected, but nowhere near as transcendent as it was when I had no idea Koreans had their own version of barbecue. The kimchee was serviceable but not nearly funky enough. Sean decided to truly splurge; along with his plate from Steve’s, he got a gyro and falafel plate from another Food Court survivor. I still have no idea what the place is called, just that the man who used to run it would really, really fuck with any students who arrogantly claimed to be able to handle spice. The red and white sauces looked the same. But they were no longer spicy, if they ever truly were.
Afterward, we walked around campus and debated whether we would be the type of people who would ride motorized scooters. We had frozen yogurt at Yogurt Park, across from our old dorm, and it was exactly as good as I remember. We watched kids file into the dining hall, where I recall once learning that iced water qualified as a vegan dining option, and proudly proclaiming that I was a vegan. It was a cliché, but it was ours.
When I got back to my parents’ house, I realized I’d had very little to drink all day. I saw a small glass bottle of Coca-Cola in the back of the fridge. Could anything be more thirst quenching? My mom furrowed her brow. She said they’d brought it with them from our old house because I’d once said it would someday be a collector’s item. I looked at it closely and it was apparently from 1993. Still, I was parched. She pointed out that cold drinks upset the body’s equilibrium. Undeterred, I looked for a bottle opener and wondered if it would still be carbonated. She finally pointed out that it would no longer be a collector’s item, and I reluctantly put it back and drank some warm water instead.
Before dinner, I went to Streetlight Records, a wondrous old shop in San Jose, to look for used CDs. I stopped by Taco Bravo, a dumpy, legendary, generically Mexican fast-food stand on Bascom Avenue, once a main record-shopping thoroughfare. It’s outlasted a lot of Silicon Valley. I got a bean burrito, watching the guy paint on some refried beans, drizzle on some shredded cheese and raw onions, and fold everything up. Imagine a Taco Bell bean burrito but room temperature. I meant to just have a few bites but, not wanting to waste the hot sauce, ate nearly the whole thing. When I got home, it was dinnertime. I didn’t mention the burrito to my parents and pretended I was just being very chill and health conscious, and that we should have a light meal of leftovers. They had picked up some things I like from Sogo Tofu, a great all-vegetarian Taiwanese takeout spot in Cupertino. I had some fan tuan and marinated tofu skin.
Saturday, September 9
Up until maybe 2010, I never said I was from Cupertino, because nobody knew where it was — far easier to say San Jose or “the Bay Area.” Apple (and the iPhone’s factory settings in particular) changed that. But it’s not an association that comes as naturally to people who grew up here in the ’80s and ’90s, who recall when nobody cared about Apple at all. Maybe that just speaks to my age rather than any feel for what it’s like to live here now. I still see the outline of the old Burger King sign that was repurposed for the pho place on Saratoga-Sunnyvale. I can see the ghostly frame of my favorite bookstore, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, in the new condo development off Highway 85.
We went for dim sum where the Sizzler used to be — it still has that peaked roof that looks a bit like a hat from a distance. It was just okay. This exercise of revisiting old haunts was wearing thin. The sesame balls were a little greasy, the steamed dumplings slightly too coagulated. The turnip cakes never had any crisp corners to begin with. “Not as good as it used to be,” my dad said, as he slid some overcooked spare ribs toward the edge of the table. We went to get doughnuts afterward. I spent the day sorting records and magazines to mail back to New York. But I realized that some things sound better in California, and I left most of my things behind to deal with another day.
For dinner, my parents wanted to check out Main Street Cupertino, a new strip of restaurants near the Apple headquarters. I think this was just some office buildings when I was a kid. They made a reservation at Koi Palace Contempo, a more modern outpost of the famed Daly City restaurant. I have eaten so much Chinese food in my life, as have my parents. It once seemed that we had been to every Chinese restaurant in an hour’s radius. We used to eat with our sprawling, extended family multiple times a week. Lunches and dinners all throughout the South Bay — some place hidden on the back side of a strip mall or just off the lobby of a depressing motel. Someone heard this place was good. We would follow chefs from one kitchen to another, my grandparents slipping their favorite waiters red envelopes to celebrate the New Year. There are more places to eat nowadays, but fewer people to share meals with.
The menu at Koi Palace Contempo was filled with things I’d never had before. We kept spying on other tables to see what we were missing out on. Pumpkin and squid, fried and then seasoned with salted egg yolk. Pea shoots, tofu, and wood-ear mushrooms braised in a milky broth. Everything was fantastic. A dish of dried tofu skin and noodles, covered with peppers, that was so spicy even my mom couldn’t handle it. I hadn’t seen that in a while. She laughed and continued eating. It’s easier to order for a dozen people than just three. But it was fine. It meant we definitely had to come back someday. It was nice to try something new.