Yaka Mein: The Magic, and Culinary Significance, of Drunk Food
My best food memory from last summer involved far too much beer, a barbecue on the patio of Cold Tea, and a paper bowl of something called Yaka Mein.
It began, as most of my Sunday nights did that summer, with a post-work beer at Thirsty and Miserable. Since it was Sunday, I was deliberately avoiding going to Cold Tea. Sunday nights were their barbecues which tended to attract a small army of gyrating hipsters. The place always brought out the very best of my awkwardness.
So, on the patio at Thirsty with a few work friends when one, formerly a cook at the Gabardine, sees a few friends coming down the street. They come over, say hello, and tell us to come to Cold Tea, the Gabardine was guest cooking at the barbecue.
I balked, and made my standard overtures towards home. But, luckily, I was coaxed and cajoled into going. Sure enough, the dancing hipsters were out in full force. Scary as they were with their ill-fitting tanktops and weirdly thick braids, the force of peer pressure carried me through.
We made our way, past the pulsing speakers, to the outdoor 'kitchen,' really just a grill and a hot plate, where all the restaurant folk were hanging out. A few more co-workers had already shown up and I was quickly introduced to a few of the Gabardine's finest.
Oh, and the smell was fucking phenomenal. This barbecue was New-Orleans themed and the smells of Old Bay, beef broth, and grilled shrimp were too much to handle. A friend gave me a bite of his Po' Boy and just as I was about to order one of my own another friend told me, "you've got to have the Yaka Mein."
"It's nasty man. New Orleans answer to Ramen, but like... its' got spaghetti noodles, and ketchup in the broth." I was sold. More than a few beers in at this point, a bowl of something greasy and spicy was exactly what I wanted. Six bucks later and I found myself on the other end of the patio, surrounded by strangers, slowly eating this bowl of Yaka Mein, unable to speak.
It was perfect. From the slightly overcooked spaghetti noodles, to the slices of boiled brisket drooping off the side of either my spoon, to the HARD boiled egg, to the broth. Fuck. The broth was that perfect mixture of hot grease, thick, almost gravy-like, beef juice, and the unholy mixture of ketchup and sriracha that can only be described as the ideal of umami.
Eventually a friend found me in a daze, and after I basically yelled at him about how good this soup was he sat me down, gave me a drink, and the night resumed its normal pace.
But the Yaka Mein stuck with me. Not just because it was good drunk food, because it was the perfect drunk food. The kind of thing invented by a hungry drunk, stumbling into his kitchen making his version of ramen from whatever he could find. And that, the slight desperation of a hungry drunk guy limited by four AM and his own inebriation, is how cuisines are invented.
It's not always drunk people, although I like to think they play a formative role. Often times the foods we associate most with fine dining were, at one time or another, the food of the poor and the desperate. I mean, who in their right mind would eat a snail unless there's absolutely no other protein source available?
Choice cuts are easy to cook, easy to eat. Take a tenderloin steak, sear it, serve with a pepper sauce, mashed potato and a lobster tail. That's not hard, it's just expensive. Take a brisket, or a pork hock, or (the very best) tripe. That's hard. Those are tough cuts, gristly and stinky. It takes work and ingenuity to make them taste good. But when it's all you can afford, you make sure it's worthwhile. In the end, if done right, it will taste better than anything you could make with a filet mignon or (shudder) a boneless skinless chicken breast.
So, dear reader, cook limited. Either by your finances, the lateness of the hour, or your current level of sobriety. Much of the time, things will taste nasty. But every so often you'll make something like Yaka Mein. When you do, call me.