Alphabet: A History (F is for Five Spice)

My heart will always belong in Humboldt County, but every time I visit San Francisco I leave a tiny little piece there, so that when I go back, I always feel at home. Or maybe it’s a different body part.

A couple of months ago Mark and I drove to the city for a few days of fun, frolicking and food. As a test of his patience and adoration of me, I took him on my own private tour, complete with long-winded stories, of all the places I love from when I used to live there: The apartment building where my neighbors were a gay exhibitionist and a dominatrix. The Russian tea house in Hayes Valley where the purple-haired woman would read my tarot cards for $1 and somehow always determine that I was on the right path – but I should return the next week just to make sure. The Arlington, a residential recovery hotel in the tenderloin where I worked and received lessons every day about humanity and humility. By the time we were finished, Mark’s eyes were glazed over, and I was famished. I knew the perfect place to take him for the end of our tour.

To my dismay, when we reached Duc Ky Restaurant, all that was left was this faded sign.

The windows were boarded up, and there were chains across the doors. So with a heavy sigh, we headed to our second choice, dim sum, where I regaled him with one last story for the day.

Duc Ky Restaurant was my first taste of ethnic food in San Francisco. Having grown up in Fortuna, I had eaten Mexican food a lot, Chinese food a little, and that was about it, so when one of my friends at The Arlington told me that the place across the street had the best Vietnamese food around, I was a little leery. But it was lunchtime, and I was hungry, so I ran across the street to Duc Ky (which I unfortunately always pronounced as “ducky’s”) to order the recommended five spice chicken.

The small dingy restaurant was filled with people hunched over huge bowls of steaming noodles. It smelled like cabbage mixed with vinegar mixed with dirty laundry.   I walked up to the counter as the woman behind it yelled “What you want?”  Intimidated, my first reaction was to back away until I was out the door, but she was glaring at me so intently I couldn’t move.

“Um…I’d like the five spice chicken.  Please.  Ma’am. To Go.”

“Good!” she yelled in the same tone as before and disappeared in the back.

While I waited I watched the people eating noodles, fascinated by their two-handed process.  They would wind the noodles around the fork with one hand and hold the spoon under it with the other hand in case the noodles slipped off.  Genius!

I also watched the pigeons.  Since the front door was open, they were free to meander their way into the restaurant, snack on some tasty morsels that had fallen on the floor and meander their way back out.  Some of them were even brazen enough to waddle all the way to the kitchen in the back.

After about five minutes the woman came out with a steaming styrofoam box, handed it to me, and took my three dollars.  Back at The Arlington, I opened the box and revealed what I would soon find to be the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten.  The chicken was dark, tender and moist.  It lay on a bed of perfectly sticky rice and sat next to some slices of cucumber.  In a little bowl was a clear sauce with thin slices of carrots in it.  The sauce was almost indescribably good – salty, sweet, tangy – I’d never had so many taste sensations hit my tongue at once.

Duc Ky became a regular lunch spot for me.  While not exactly clean, it was cozy, comfortable – I began to feel at home.  The noodle slurpers were always there, as were the wandering pigeons.  The woman at the counter began greeting me with a “You want five spice chicken!” yell and an almost-smile.

Then one day, several months after my first taste,  as I stood waiting for my order and watching the usual suspects, I realized something:  The pigeons who were bold enough to amble their way to the back kitchen disappeared.  Not once did I ever see one come back out again.

I grabbed my styrofoam box, ran back across the street, breathed in the delicious aroma and took a bite while convincing myself that Duc Ky must have a back door.  I imagined the kindly little chef gently feeding the pigeons some small scraps and shooing them out with a wave of his hand.

I’ve been to many Vietnamese restaurants since my days at Duc Ky, and not once have I ever been able to find a five spice chicken that tastes even close.  Every dish has lacked a particular…something.

Mark and I are heading back to San Francisco tomorrow for the weekend.  We’ll watch a Burlesque show and the SF Gay Lesbian Chorus, walk all over Chinatown and eat as much ethnic food as possible.   I only wish he could experience the culinary delights of Duc Ky’s famous Five Spice Pigeon.

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6 responses to “Alphabet: A History (F is for Five Spice)

  1. I sooo get you here, Kristabel. Your San Francisco is my New Orleans. For many of the same reasons. We are actually quite alike, my friend – only in different ways. Ya know? :) I would be devastated if I went to my beloved NOLA and found Coop’s Place, where dogs wander in and out of a smoke-filled, grimy kitchen, and where the most amazing, flavorful, hot bowl of jambalaya is served up (last time with a side of homemade-by-the-bartender chocolate chip & bacon cookies) was closed. Seriously devastated. Your pigeon post reminded me of a recipe for Pigeon Pie I found in a vintage New Orleans Creole Recipe book I have. Is it wrong that the recipe sounds yummy to me until it gets to the part about adding sliced boiled eggs? Somehow, fried pigeon sounds OK, but with sliced boiled eggs? Now that’s just taking it too far.

    • I don’t know….I think the boiled eggs would be okay in pigeon pie. Let’s try it when you come home for Christmas. The old town gazebo’s always full of ’em.

  2. I share your love of the city by the bay. As you may have guessed, I’m not much of an urbanite, (spell check is hating on me for making up that word) but I feel comfy there. The Haight feels a little like SoHum on steroids. Where wardrobe choice, body art, and people who are a little less bland than the average soccer Mom, don’t bat an eye at a country mouse in Carhartts carrying Prada. By the way – I wasn’t that mouse – but I was with her. Carhartt makes my butt look big.

    • Bahahahahaha. You crack me up. I love the Haight too, and Sohum on steroids is perfect. The last time I was there I watched an old man in a skirt steal a bag of m ‘n m’s, and when the clerk yelled at him and grabbed the bag out of his hands, he said, “You can’t have those back. It’s candy.” With this incredulous look on his face like all candy all over the world should just be free. Love.

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