I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, all because they played video games. I know because I was one of them: my mind was nurtured not on Luigi Pirandello but Luigi as in Mario and Luigi as in Super Mario Brothers 1, 2 and 3. Also, Legend of Zelda. And the pinnacle of my video gaming achievement: The Goonies for Nintendo, which I beat late one night to the delight of my awestruck brother.
How amazing to ponder the hours spent behind that glowing screen, fingers clicking frantically: worlds conquered, princesses saved. How horrifying, in a way, to consider all the hours wasted that might have been spent reading or writing or playing hopscotch. I might have been a hopscotch champion! Instead I saved a mermaid.
When a mind, like mine, marinates for as long as it did in the world of video games, one begins to wonder what flavors linger from that former life? Do I view life as a mission, a la the mission games–earning and achieving, ascending from level to level? Or do I view life as a puzzle, like the puzzle games (Clu Clu Land comes to mind–anyone ever play that?)–life slowly unraveling to reveal great designs underneath?
Tonight’s dinner at Nam flashed me forward a few years beyond the roguish western philosophy of Nintendo and into the eastern zen garden of Myst.
Did anyone here play Myst? Do you recall its quiet splendor?
The mission of Myst was to, basically, wander around until you found things. No little ghosts chasing after you; no steadily diminishing time clock. Myst was in a way a suspended meditative state: replete with ethereal water noises and sparkling sunlight coming through trees.
I never even got close to figuring out what I had to do to beat the game and it seemed almost irrelevent. Instead I spent many happy hours clicking left, clicking right, and savoring this virtual environment, eager to stumble across a hidden “world” that would transport me someplace new.
This is a respectable philosophy, I think, when it comes to dining. Click left. Click right. Savor your world. Get transported.
And I can’t even begin to tell you how thoroughly transported I was tonight at Nam:
If Atlanta dining is its own video game, Nam is a place I’ve passed by many times, never thinking to “click” it. It just kind of blended into the background. It was next to a UPS Store.
Then earlier this week my friend Mark suggested a dinner outing with our friends Andrew and Trinh on Thursday. I would pick the place because I’m the Amateur Gourmet. I consulted John kessler’s Best of Atlanta list and my eyes set on Nam for its rice flour Tamales.
Where was Nam? Let me get directions.
Oh wait! It’s that place next to the UPS store!
So you know those video games where two players can fight together against a common enemy? Like that one with the wizard and the ninja or something? Anyone, anyone? Bueller?
Tonight I was lucky to have Trinh by my side. Trinh is half Vietnamese and she was here to help us navigate the menu. And also because we enjoy her company. Also joining us was the aforementioned Mark and the nowformentioned Andrew:
The waitress came around to take our drink order. Mark and Andrew stuck with water. Trinh asked if they had any Vietnamese drinks. The waitress srunched her face for a second.
“We have a very tart drink,” she said not-so-confidently.
“Ah,” said Trinh, “You mean ****.”
“Yes,” said the waitress.
“I’ll have that,” said Trinh.
“Me too,” I chimed in.
[I attempted to enter the name of the drink into my cell phone so I could report it to you now, but it is no longer there–maybe because no number was attached?]
Anyway, here is the drink in question:
It is a combination of salt and lemon and sunshine. According to Trinh, the lemons are salted and left in the sun to decompose. That’s how this drink is made.
And at first, it’s a little shocking to the palate. You’re not used to drinking something so salty through a straw. Although it is reminiscent of a margarita. And eventually the drink grew on me—I really enjoyed the depth of its fermented flavor.
Now the actual ordering. I played it safe, relying on John Kessler’s glowing review. [Sort of like cheating at Zelda with a “How To Beat Zelda” book.] Everyone else took some chances.
Mark and Andrew scored significant points with their fried soft shell crab and ginger sauce:
Trinh turned many heads with her steamed rice cakes (Banh Beo):
But I scored the magic mushroom with my Kessler-recommended Rice Flour Tamales (Banh Nam):
The presentation alone was enonugh to make me ooh and ahh. Wrapped in banana leaves, the waitress peeled back the one on top to reveal a layer of white flecked with bits of pork and shrimp and mushrooms. She poured a small spoonful of fish sauce for me and invited me to begin.
What a strange concoction! So unlike anything I’ve eaten before. I loved it.
How exciting, really, that there still worlds left to conquer! Let’s leave the video game motif behind and ponder the depressing notion that all land masses on earth have already been discovered. There will be no more Magellans. What’s left then for us? The answer is in the tamale. Vestiges of culture!
I truly felt transported eating this. I fell down the rabbit-hole. I took the red pill. (Or is it the blue pill?) I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Soon the plates were taken away. Trinh and I shared a sour mango salad (Goi Xoai):
This was interesting both flavor-wise and texture wise. The mangos were cut into long noodles that felt almost like spaghetti. And with the shrimp the salad was both refreshing and exotic, yet strangely familiar.
Finally, there was the “Shaking” Filet Mignon (Bo Luc Lac):
Please believe me when I say that never in all my life have I had beef this tender. It was a marvel. It literally melted in my mouth. Everyone who tried it (and Andrew ordered it too, so there was plenty to try) couldn’t get over how tender the beef was. Even flies on the wall whispered to eachother: “That beef is remarkably tender.”
And I loved the strange ritual of squeezing a lime into a little bowl of salt and pepper to act as a condiment. It worked out great: the lime and salt and pepper gave the beef the kick it needed to fully inflate its potential.
Sadly, there are no desserts at Nam. If you haven’t noticed, I’m a dessert kind of guy. But it’s a testament to how enraptured I was by this meal that I didn’t care. Bad dessert would have broken the spell.
We wandered outside and made our way home: this little adventure was over. No princess saved, no puzzle solved—and yet, despite that, something inextricably won.