Here was the plan: We’d take our families to the Aloha Concert Jam in Long Beach and spend the day listening to music, then go out to dinner somewhere near Pine Street. It would be a long day, with no nap for my 5-year-old and much too much sun, but the thought of jump-starting summer in early June was so exhilarating that I had no intention of refusing. The six of us arrived at the waterfront around 2, admired the Queen Mary from a distance, got our hands stamped, and entered an area full of Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander merchants and chefs hawking everything from chicken and mango tostadas to vintage-print muumuus and orchid leis. Dancers and drummers from Guam captivated my child for some 20 minutes, especially when the boys lunged with their carved wooden sticks and the girls twirled round and round in their skimpy grass skirts, their breasts covered by nothing more than coconut shells tied with string. The drums were so loud they shook the grassy earth, and the smells of freshly cooked pork chow mein and kettle-popped corn were intoxicating. “Do you think somebody is selling Hawaiian beer?” I asked my friend Deborah, who runs the Museum of Cultural Diversity in Carson and whose suggestion it was to come to this festival. She took off, disappearing into the crowd, and returned with a plate full of Hawaiian goodies: laulau (pork shoulder wrapped in leaves), salmon salsa, transparent rice noodles, white rice. “Have you ever seen a Samoan tattoo?” she asked.
This was not the way we’d planned to have a meal together, but it happened, quite organically. We found shade beneath a merchant’s tarp, sat down, ate hot-off-the-grill spareribs, pineapple slaw and island tamales on paper plates with plastic forks, and with our fingers, of course. We picked from each other’s plates, naming the dishes, guessing at the recipes, some Asian, some Samoan, some traditional Hawaiian. It was messy and sticky, and perhaps better than anything we could have found in a more formal downtown Long Beach restaurant. And while food is not what I was after on that hot, sunny day, it is what I remember — that stringy, garlic-laced pork with just the right amount of greasy succulence, just the right crispiness, that I had only a taste of. “It’s good,” Deborah said to me, swatting at bees with her straw hat. “Really good.” I think they called it “pulled.”
In summer, when we go places with our friends and families because the day is so lovely, because the sun calls us out of our homes, we may think of food only after it is in front of us, right under our noses. And maybe we don’t even think of it at all. You might be window-shopping in the afternoon and grow weary. Those sandals you just bought are rubbing your heels, and your husband says he needs a cup of coffee and a bite of something. You throw your feet up on a chair and order something to go with that coffee, something that won’t interfere with your 7:30 dinner reservation. But you wouldn’t call it food.
We have destinations that are themselves restaurants, and we plan for them within an inch of our lives. We arrange for a baby sitter, make a reservation and drive across town for them. But we also have destinations that are not themselves restaurants, where we don’t intend upon eating, but oh yeah, we get hungry, and the smell of that hot dog at Dodger Stadium seduces us from our Top Deck seats to line up with 100 others for what is undoubtedly the best piece of grilled meat in the world. A frozen chocolate-covered banana on Balboa Island makes a lazy day at the beach somehow more eventful, and something of a guilty pleasure. But you wouldn’t call it food.
Sometimes, too, a chance encounter in a food court or a department-store basement can evolve into a kind of romance, no longer a diversion but a destination in itself. Mention a gooey, corn-battered Cheese on a Stick and that mildly sour lemonade, and a certain restaurant critic salivates. If he needs anything at the mall, he’s there, baby, famished or not. Talk about the nine-grain pancakes at a little café in Venice near the antique shops, and another critic waxes poetic. A pancake is not a pancake is not a . . . Bookshelves spotted in the pages of an IKEA catalog become your sole excuse to head directly to the in-store cafeteria for the meatballs with lingonberries. A cruise through Koreatown looking for flamboyant handmade gifts scores a chicken soup that’s shockingly good, and so spicy that it makes you choke. More, more, you beg.
And nearly everybody swears by the bialys and smoked sturgeon at Barney Greengrass. You’re in the lingerie department of Barneys, and the restaurant is right upstairs. You’re curious, and carrying plastic. There’s a table on the terrace available, and the waiter’s smile is so gracious, his voice so boisterous, his accent so Brooklyn that he charms you right inside the open glass doors. Lunching at 4:15 is the last thing on your mind, right? Ahh, but it’s sweet, and somehow out of order, spontaneous as a summer rain. And since it isn’t lunch time, you wouldn’t call it food.