BO-DE-GA: Food Choices at the Corner Store

| March 24, 2008 | 0 Comments
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Bodega: The Bronx

Laughs are few and far between for anyone who works in that tough corner of the food world where food security, public health, and urban development issues intersect. Fortunately, the dynamic duo of Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam have been making short, sharp, and extremely funny documentaries about shopping and eating in urban neighborhoods, including this short on bodegas, those infamous corner stores.

Dallas Penn blogs about music, sports, politics and whatever else strikes his fancy (tags include “Black Bullshit” and “Wig Owners” and “Social Upheaval”). His partner in comedy, Rafi Kam, reviews albums and writes features about topics like Baduizm, a contagious disease that strikes the nerve endings of rap artists.

Together, they tackle the finer points of the Bodega Food Pyramid. This short film is a refreshing break from the boring, depressing, and thoroughly condescending material that comes out of many public health agencies. It somehow manages to be affectionately searing.

For anyone out there who has wondered why “certain communities” don’t buy organic fruit or eat more salads, this will be an educational feature. For those who grew up in the Bronx or East St. Louis or South Central L.A., this documentary will hit close–perhaps too close–to home and heart.

Here in Bayview Hunters Point, nonprofit organizations and city agencies have been trying to spread good food with the Good Neighbor project. UK-based Tesco is eyeing a space for one of their newly polished Fresh&Easy markets, grocery stores with smaller footprints that are positioned to enter under-served neighborhoods. There’s been some back and forth, though, as the company has been hesitating to agree to community standards that might cut into their profits. Neighbors are asking them to not sell hard liquor, but Tesco is loathe to give up the very high margins of the alcohol aisle.

At a policy symposium last year, I listened as their frontman pointed out how grateful we should all be that they’re even considering opening a full-service grocery store and creating jobs in a poverty-ridden food dessert. Ask some of the locals, though, how happy they are to have their requests ignored.

And watch Penn and Kam’s “Bodega” to understand, with a smile, what is at stake.

Bodega: The Tenderloin

On a complete tangent, the title of the film reminds me of a Vietnamese restaurant on Larkin Street in San Francisco (another neighborhood that also happens to be facing the community upheavals accompanying many urban redevelopment projects). Yes, service is spotty. And yes, the food is not good across the board. But it’s one of those neighborhood places that has lingered through change and remained popular through several face-lifts and menu tweaks.

Bodega Bistro used to actually serve all three: bo (beef), de (goat) and ga (chicken). Hand-penned signs taped to the wall once advertised their special goat stew, but those are long gone. The name of the restaurant stuck, though, and its menu offers the usual suspects. One dish worth highlighting, though, is bun cha, a specialty of Hanoi.

For first-timers, it might be a bit confusing when the order arrives. A plate of greens and herbs piled high. Some plain rice noodles. Some meat submerged in clear broth. And an empty bowl. None of it looks particular appetizing on its own, but it’s culinary magic when the layers of flavors and textures meld together.

Like many Vietnamese meals, it’s all up to the diner. Combine small amounts of each ingredient in your own bowl, then drizzle a spoonful of sauce over all. If you’ve ordered any type of bun, the refreshing cold noodle salads that’s a popular lunch item in Vietnam, then you’ll have an idea of what bun cha can be. It’s more formal, however, and when done well, truly memorable. The cut and quality of the meat and the freshness of the herbs are what determine the best versions. I wish the food were more consistent here, but two out of three times, it hits the spot.

Now, if only Bodega would bring back its second-syllable goat dishes.

Bodega Bistro
607 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94199
(415) 921-1218
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About the Author ()

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place. Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.