The historic Nanking becomes Vietnamese Food Shop

Asian Grab and Go

Shrimp, so sweet, so spicy, so surprisingly filling
  • Shrimp, so sweet, so spicy, so surprisingly filling

Something’s staring back at me through the chainlink fencing. Sunlight glints through the sockets of his eyes.

Carla's banh mi. French-Vietnamese Hybrid. Lotsa meats.

Carla's banh mi. French-Vietnamese Hybrid. Lotsa meats.

Wow. King Kong? His giant skull. In bits. On the grass.

“Buddy, I said bring the drill,” says one of the workers. Guy with the drill picks his way across Kong’s ribs, big as a whale’s.

“Skull Island,” he mutters.

Pork bowl

Pork bowl

Oh, yes. Comic-Con.

This was last week, Gaslamp trolley stop, couple of days before the convention was due to start. You could feel the buzz. Heck, they were unpeeling the plastic wrap around the whole Petco Park stadium. “Once Upon a Time…” The Hilton across Harbor Drive was disappearing. I mean, have to admit, it is kinda awesome. Big imagination takes over! I kinda wanted to stay in the area, in the what-if atmosphere. Then I suddenly think: how hard can it be to write a movie?

Food Shop

455 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Hmm... Maybe if I grab a bite, feed the little gray cells, I could nail that million-buck idea. I head up Fifth. And guess what? At Island I come across a place called Monkey King! Good sign. This is where I’ll conceive my first movie.

So, I head into this pretty cool-looking joint with beautiful re-exposed brick walls, way-high ceiling, and an island bar. Except, well, I see pretty quick it’s not going to be the bargain-basement burger joint I need.

But the gal at the welcome lectern says I should go next door, place called the Food Shop. “That uses the same kitchen. The chef is the same,” she says, “but it’s cheaper.”

So I do. Below the “Food Shop” sign, it says, “Asian Grab and Go.”

Inside, I can see the building is the same. The beautiful brick walls. The high ceiling. And unlike most places here in the Gaslamp, it’s small, has a neighborhood feel. Folks are slurping soups, reading schoolbooks, or laptopping. And I can see through the servery, that’s one big kitchen beyond.

Abbey, the gal at the counter, points me to the menu on the wall behind her.

It looks mainly Vietnamese. It starts off with bánh mì. (“What is bánh mì?” it asks. And shows an exploded picture of the whole thing: the bread, the cilantro, the daikon (radish), protein such as beef or chicken, cucumbers, jalapeños, and mayo. Basically the bánh mì is what the French took with them to Vietnam back when colonizing was their thing, and the Vietnamese adapted it a little, like mixing a bunch of meats in the same sandwich.

The Classic, with pâté, terrine, pork roll, and roasted pork, costs $6. The beef or chicken, with pickled vegetables also go for $6, but the grilled pork chop bánh mì, with “seven spices pork chop and caramel sauce” is $7, and the beef meatball, spicy fish, or veggie, each cost $8. You can add a fried egg for $1 extra.

They have a bunch of pho’s at $9 and $10, and a couple of salads — green papaya with shrimp or BBQ chicken — at $8 each. And rolls for $5. Like the pork spring roll or the shrimp or tofu summer roll. (Uh, spring? Summer? Abbey reminds me: spring rolls are fried, have meat; summer rolls have raw salad veggies with them, and shrimp or tofu, and are wrapped in that translucent rice-flour skin that makes them look like pods of aliens.

But I want to try a bowl. They come with pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, fish, or tofu. I choose the chili shrimp. Costs $10.

“With rice, vermicelli noodles, or salad?” says Abbey.

I go for the salad. Got to keep the mind healthy if I’m gonna write this movie script.

Oh, man. It’s healthy, all right. Six shrimp on top of a mountain of bean sprouts, mini tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, carrot, green beans, and the winner for me, a forest of shredded green papaya. It’s got a little bowl of sweet chili liquid, plus some kind of browny sweetish sauce over the shrimp, and a generous scattering of that great Vietnamese standby, crumbled peanuts. The green papaya gives it a piquant kick that goes so well with the sweet sauce. And, you know this whole thing, like so much Vietnamese food, is insanely good for you.

Yes, I do feel the need for something bready. Which gives me the excuse to ask for one classic bánh mì, mostly for Carla, natch. And some of those five-buck spring rolls (not the summer ones...she can’t handle how they look like giant larvae).

“So, what’s with the ‘Monkey King’ moniker?” I ask Abbey. She shakes her head. “I’ve only been working here a couple of weeks,” she says.

But others here tell me we’re in a totally historic, century-old building with a story. This used to be the famous Nanking Café, and in the back, right through that wall, a respected Chinese community leader named Tom Ah Quin ran an illegal gambling joint for decades. He called it “The Monkey King.”

“Ah, yes,” says Carla when I call. She knows about this stuff. “In Asia, the Monkey King is Hanuman. A hero like Superman. And in China, he was known as ‘Sun Wu Kong.’ ‘Kong’: Coincidence?”

I think back to the giant jaws waiting to be assembled for Comic-Con. King Kong.

“Hey! This is perfect for my movie script,” I tell her. “It’s come to me: King Kong gets infused with animatronic life and A-I at Comic-Con in San Diego. Escapes. So, scene one: Inside the Monkey King Gambling Hall. Woman craps dealer looks up:”

“‘Oh my Gaaad!’”

“Great,” says Carla. “Just don’t forget the rolls. Spring rolls.”

Food Shop

455 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Hours: 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m., 5–10 p.m. daily (till 11 p.m., Friday, Saturday; 5–10 p.m. only, Sundays)

Prices: Classic bánh mì (with pâté, terrine, pork roll, roasted pork), $6; beef or chicken bánh mì, $6; grilled pork chop bánh mì, $7; spicy fish bánh mì, $8; pho tai (rare sliced beef noodle soup), $9; pho ga (chicken noodle soup), $9; garlic noodles, $10; pork spring rolls, $5; shrimp summer (raw) rolls, $5; green papaya salad, shrimp, $8; seven spices BBQ pork bowl (with rice, noodles, or salad), $9; chili shrimp bowl, $10; fish satay and dill bowl, $11; tofu bowl, $9

Buses: 3, 11

Nearest Bus Stops: Sixth and Market

Trolley: Green Line

Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp

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