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The Wealth of Nations: Seeing San Francisco on One Sandwich a Day 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014

In the fall of 2010, I was an erstwhile server-bartender at the symphony-opera-ballet complex, which involved more furniture-moving than actual food and beverage service. Semi-employment suited me well, as it does most people, and in between sending out résumés and watching all of Arrested Development and Mad Men on Netflix, I made a game out of eating as frugally as possible so that I didn't run out of money completely before securing real employment. For lunch, I wound up walking to the Tenderloin for $3.25 banh mi a lot. It got me out of the house, where I was sweating out the end of my 20s.

Saigon Sandwich, as most San Franciscans know, is a quintessential hole-in-the-wall with a permanent line out the door. It's run by Vietnamese women who err on the side of brusque, and once you're inside the tension rises and rises as the crowd jockeys for position, daring to cut anybody in line who might dare to cut in line. Everything costs less than five bucks, and you can get those hot garlic-flavored shrimp chips that are oddly addictive even though they taste like low tide. I almost always get a "fancy pork banh mi," which is anything but fancy.

The corner of Eddy and Larkin is by no means the worst intersection in the T.L., but the local color is generally quite vivid. At some point in early 2011, The New York Times discovered Saigon Sandwich, and with the paper of record's imprimatur, the queues got longer and more varied in their composition. Any given day, the line would be: me, some other marginally employed bearded guy, the assistant district attorney, three native Vietnamese speakers, an obviously homeless guy, a stroller mom from way down the other end of Larkin, and so on.

Around that time, my financial situation went from desperate to catastrophic. Catering work reliably dries up after Christmas, and I didn't have enough seniority at the opera to get the number of shifts I needed. Luckily, I started a full-time writing gig in January, but wouldn't get paid until early March. In the meantime, I maxed out my credit cards, canceled my Netflix and Times subscriptions, evaded student loan robo-calls, borrowed money from my cousin in Oakland, and sent my bank account into overdraft.

Somehow, I had a little bit of cash in my wallet, and Saigon Sandwich went from an inexpensive lunch to my lone indulgence. I'd gotten rid of my car, and, as Muni was out of the question, by the time I walked home and tore open the paper from around that sandwich, I felt like Charlie Bucket unwrapping the Golden Ticket from a Wonka Bar. Working full time and having absolutely no money is a strange sensation, and you can only eat so many carrots with hummus no matter how dire things are. I spent money I didn't (yet) have on this most quotidian of luxuries, and the fact that it happened to be absolutely delicious was less important than the psychological value. Look at me, going out for lunch like a regular person. Sorry you can't leave me a voicemail; Sallie Mae filled up my inbox.

The very last restaurant food I ate in San Francisco in my 20s was fancy pork banh mi. Anywhere else, I might have been recognized as a regular by then, but to the proprietors I was just another widget off the endless assembly line that comes in their door. Two days after my 30th birthday, I deposited my first paycheck and began turning everything back on and paying everybody off. In the years since, I've eaten more or less like every other food-obsessed San Franciscan, which is to say well, with the occasional splurge. For my boyfriend's birthday, I took him to lunch at Zuni and dinner at the Old Clam House. The year before that, we went to the House of Prime Rib (for the Henry VIII cut, naturally). I will probably remember those meals forever. As it turns out, his office is four blocks from Saigon Sandwich, so I go at least once a month. Every time, it still feels like a treat.


About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40


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