Chef’s Salad

Before living in Viet Nam, I’d had a Chef’s Salad just one time in my life.  It was during the summer of 1969.  My girlfriend, her sister and her boyfriend, and I stopped at a Denny’s restaurant on Fourth Avenue in downtown Spokane late at night after doing something or going somewhere.  Can’t recall.  That Denny’s is gone now.

My family and I didn’t eat out much.  Mom was a great cook, Dad liked piddling around in the kitchen, and we didn’t have a lot of money.  So, dinners out were limited to the Cathy Inn Chinese restaurant on north Division Street and always included a mound of fried rice with two strips of pork crisscrossed and imbedded on top.  I wouldn’t figure out how they did that topping without crushing the mound until I was 33 years old and my Taiwanese-born wife would give me the “duh” answer.

Our other meal out was dollar hotcakes at Knight’s Diner in a repurposed railroad dining car, also on north Division.  It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I figured out why they called them “dollar” hotcakes.  I guess that was yet another difference between my elders’ generations using primarily coin currency and mine using paper.  Anyway, we’d stop in there on the way out to go fishing at Waitts Lake in the spring and summer.

Oh, we also had hamburgers late at night at the Panda restaurant at the intersection of Division and Wellesley on the way home from Dad’s swing shift on Friday nights.  He’d pick up Mom, my brother and me from Papa and Grandma’s house where we’d stayed that evening waiting for him to get off work.

So, my dining experiences were limited and, until I wrote this, I didn’t realize they were even more limited to Division Street!  We weren’t on Division that night so I deferred to the others at Denny’s to recommend something to eat.  A Chef’s Salad coming right up.  It was good.

A year later, I stumbled on that kind of salad again.  This time, though, it was 7,700 miles away and it was in a city without anything like a Denny’s:  Saigon, Republic of South Viet Nam.  Tom and I had ventured out to try a dining hall different from the one we used all the time at Capital Hotel, part of the Bachelor Enlisted Quarters (BEQ) where we lived in Saigon’s Chinatown, Cho Lon.

The President BEQ and dining hall – or whatever was the name of the place we went – was in Saigon, up Tran Hung Dao about a mile or so from where we lived.  We might have taken a bus the Army had available to shuttle GIs around Saigon.  We could have walked, we did that a lot, but probably didn’t because we were going out for dinner and would not have wanted to get too sweaty.  Saigon’s weather was dry and hot or wet and hot, but it was always hot.  We most likely shared a cyclo mai, the commercial motorized cycle with space for two in a bench seat in front and the driver on a saddle in the back.  We loved riding in those things.  Crazy dangerous though, but we were just in our early 20s so what the hell!

We got into that dining room and found out it was completely different from our dining hall.  This was more like a night club.  On a stage was a group from the Philippines blaring full blast in perfect mimicry of America’s Top 40.  Jeff Christie’s Yellow River must have been requested and sung very third song that night.  Probably because sailors from the Delta were in there and because it fit the play list the PI singers had memorized.

Instead of a buffet hotline, we had menus from which we ordered our own food.  Of course, here we had to pay for it while at the Capital it was free as part of our in-kind Basic Allowance Subsistence (BAS).  Most of the things on the menu were similar to our own rotating selections at the Capital.  Except the Chef’s Salad.

I went for it.  Fifty cents.  So worth it.  The huge bowl must have been double the size of the offering at Denny’s.  The clincher, though, was the salad dressing.  Denny’s had provided a little cup of whatever I wanted.  At the President, they gave us a whole bottle with the order.  You better believe I partook of the blue cheese manna from heaven.  No way I had less than a third of that bottle.  Maybe I actually had dressing with a base of salad.

I’d found my first comfort food.

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