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  • Writer's pictureJordan Heinrich

You a rice guy? Or a noodle guy?

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

I graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English.


20 years later I started a food blog.



A few months after moving back to my parents' from college I wasn't having much luck cashing in on my liberal arts degree. And by much luck, I mean, no luck.


Then the phone rang. It was Teddy Efstratis with a temporary proposition.


This was in 2001. The housing market was going through a massive boom in the long lead-up to the Great Recession. And Teddy's Dad, big Ted, owned a successful tile and stone shop. I was familiar with the operation because I had worked as a tile laborer for a summer.


This time around the assignment would be different.


With the sheer volume of tile installation material moving through the warehouse daily, there was growing concern that a lot of job-specific orders were poorly organized and finding their way onto the wrong delivery trucks going to the wrong jobsites.


Or worse, they were being repurposed all together. Stolen.


Teddy explained that the person in charge of running the tile warehouse, a young Vietnamese man named Ho, was in over his head.


Big Ted needed someone to help get his shop in better order. He needed a warehouse manager.


Gas and beer money in the meantime, I figured. A six-month gig. Max.


Teddy told me to come by the shop later in the week.


The hiring process was pretty straight-forward. The job paid X-dollars an hour. The shop opened at 6am. Could I start on Monday?


No problem.


There's one more thing, Teddy said. The guy that was running the shop, Ho, had kind of meltdown recently. Walked off the job. Personal issues.


That didn't mean much to me.


*****


Monday morning I pulled into the parking lot in the dark around 5:30am. The front and back roll-up doors were already open wide. Flat-bed trucks were being hastily loaded with fork-lifted pallets. Multiple languages were being shouted simultaneously by no less than 30 men darting between vehicles and roof-high Home-Depot-style racks. Nobody seemed to be in a very good mood.


It was chaos.


I recognized one of the foreman from that previous summer job. A familiar face in the crowd. I sidled up next to him near the back roll-up door where he was barking orders to some of his crew.


Good morning, Don. How's it going? Jordan Heinrich. We met a few years ago, in the field. I was working with Larry and Bloom.


He gave me a blank stare.


Anyway, Don. Ted hired me on to help out.


He shrugged.


I'm the new warehouse manager.


Don was 6' - 4" tall. He had long wavy hair pulled into a ponytail and a wiry brown and reddish beard. Not someone to be trifled with.


He leaned down a little closer to where I was standing. His eyes narrowed.


Well, if you're the new warehouse manager, I have a question for you.


Where's my f*cking tile?


*****


Everyone had cleared out of the warehouse by 7:30am. The silent ringing left behind is what I imagine an empty arena sounds like 3 hours after AC/DC has left the stage.


Thankfully, Teddy and a few of my other friends also worked in different divisions of the company all in the same tilt-up concrete building off of South Watt Avenue. So I headed their direction to try to explain my first morning as warehouse manager, and to BS in general.


Later I introduced myself to some of the office staff that usually arrived around 8am. They all seemed like less harmful people.


I told my manager it might be a good idea to re-organize a few things in the warehouse, maybe paint some letters and numbers on the racks. He thought that was a start. I drove to Home Depot for stencils and spray paint.


When I got back the lead delivery driver, another Vietnamese man named Ngoc, was in the warehouse tidying up cardboard boxes and sweeping the floor. Ngoc was a short and broad-shouldered man with thick forearms and rough hands from years of hucking heavy bags of grout, cement, and lime.


I started to lay out my stencils and come up with some type of plan.


Around 10:30am I overhead Ngoc speaking Vietnamese into his Nextel phone. He turned in my direction and asked if I was hungry. Someone was bringing food. I was hungry, but I declined, thinking I was being polite.


It has taken me a lifetime of saying 'No. Thank-you.' to learn that most of the time it's actually an insult to the person offering.


Around 11am a Honda Accord pulled into the parking lot near the front roll-up door. A husky figure got out of the driver side and then reached into the back seat and pulled out three or four tightly tied plastic bags.


Ngoc called out a greeting to the man in Vietnamese. When he finished talking I asked Ngoc who this was.


That's Ho, Ngoc said. He brought us lunch.


*****


I didn't know much about Ho. I heard he was in over his head. Personal issues. I heard about him walking off the job.


This job. Now my job. And here he was.


As Ho crossed the warehouse floor in our direction I could see he was a hefty man. He was wearing long basketball shorts, a double-X white tee, and Adidas slides. His face was round and his black hair closely cropped. There were green-ink Asian tattoos flashing under the sleeves of his shirt.


You Jordan? he said. I brought you guys some Vietnamese food. You like Vietnamese food?


Before I could answer, the door from the office to the warehouse opened and a very slight and very pregnant Asian woman came walking in.


What's up, Girl? Ho said. Leaning down to kiss her on the forehead. I brought lunch for everyone. He gestured in my direction. This is my wife. Have you met?


We actually had met earlier that morning. She worked in accounting. I didn't know she was Ho's wife.


There wasn't a table or any chairs. So Ho put the Vietnamese take-out on a waist-high pallet of cement bags. The first carton he handed to his wife. The second one to Ngoc. He laid one out for himself. And then he offered one my way. You hungry, Jordan?


I was hungry, no doubt. But why was Ho really here? I knew I was being sized up.


I accepted the Styrofoam container with a nod.


Ho and his wife sat up on the bags of cement like a stool. Ngoc leaned against one of the steel racks. I stood shuffling from foot to foot.


This is pork chop and rice, Ho announced.


I cracked open the lid to find two thin grilled pork chops, a skewer of three grilled shrimp, an egg roll cut in half on the bias, steamed rice, and a small clear plastic container of rose-colored liquid with julienned carrots and chili seeds floating.


I hadn't seen a dish like this one.


Ngoc, Ho, and his wife started forking eagerly at the food.


I lifted a pork chop from the container and took a chewy bite. I sampled the shrimp. Ate a sticky lump of rice. It's hard to describe food, but this was extraordinary.


I watched as Ngoc snapped the lid from the plastic ramekin and drained it over his entire plate.


This is delicious, I acknowledged to Ho.


You have to try the fish sauce, he responded.


Fish sauce?


We add it to everything. It's our sauce.


I'll admit the English translation made me skeptical. But here I was, in Ho and Ngoc's warehouse, sharing a meal with them and Ho's wife. Being inspected.


Fish sauce, in!


As we ate our lunch together Ho started to quiz me about how I knew big Ted. How I knew Teddy. I explained it went back many years growing up with Paul Efstratis. Big Ted's Godson, and Teddy's first cousin. He nodded while eating his food. Not taking his eyes off of me.


Ted and Teddy are family to me, Ho said. They've done a lot for me. I love them like family. But things don't always work out.


His wife looked at him knowingly.


I understand how you feel, I said.


All four of us knew that wasn't very true.


Then Ho put down his fork and food. I have a question for you, Jordan.


What's that? I said.


You a rice guy? Or a noodle guy?


I stopped shuffling from foot to foot.


Was this it? Was this the challenge? Were territories being lost? Claims re-staked?


I never really thought about it, I said.


I bet you're a noodle guy, Ho said.


*****


To this day I don't know what Ho meant by that. I initially thought that he was implying I was soft. Bendable. Tender. I doubt that now. Maybe he just wanted to share a Vietnamese meal with the guy who replaced him in his job to see if that person's heart was in the right place. I'll never know. Ho never came back to the warehouse.


I worked with Ngoc for another two years. We became close partners, and we shared countless Vietnamese meals and ice-cold after-work beers.


The shop eventually closed its doors. And I don't know where Ngoc is now. But I am sure he is somewhere working very hard for his family.


And Ho was right.


I am a noodle guy.














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paulefstratis
Feb 12, 2021

beautiful. you still got it, nadroj.

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