Banh Mi, Myself, and I – Eating Alone for the First Time

pho 99, brentwood/west los angeles, ca - banh mi
There is no doubt that unemployment is tough financially and physically. You pretty much know your financial situation will suck. Consistently. You pretty much know that your physical situation will suck. Consistently. At least there is comfort in knowing that there is consistency in the suckage.

Emotionally, however, unemployment is much more of a nauseating roller coaster than I thought it would be. It’s like the goddamned Texas Cyclone when you’re five years old. Up and down. In a really scary way.

At first, unemployment sucked emotionally. More than anything, it was a massive hit to my pride, as well as real test of my self-confidence. I felt like I had been dumped. *wah wah* How come they don’t want me anymore? Am I not good enough? The sting of becoming unemployed was still fresh in my mind (hey, I wasn’t fired, okay? I simply “became unemployed,” and we will leave it at that), and all I could do was nurse my injured pride with Citron, soda, and a twist of lemon. And some very therapeutic blogging.

Then, unemployment was awesome. I didn’t have to work. No work?! Yes, No work!!! It’s like vacation! And though funemployment checks were hardly “compensation,” it was enough to keep me from completely obliterating my savings on frivolous things like bulk instant ramen that would send me into sustained sodium bloat shock day after day.

Then unemployment went back to sucking because even though I had freedom, I had no one “to freedom” (v.) with. It’s just like playing hooky when you really do have a job. Unless your other working friends play hooky, too, there isn’t much to do except stay inside your apartment all day and IM with your friends who are at their jobs, which dammit, you do when you’re at work anyway so it’s a wasted PTO day. Dammit.

Then unemployment was awesome because I realized I could stay out until 3 am every night. Even on a Monday.

But then unemployment sucked because again, I can’t really afford to stay out until 3 am by myself and because my friends who have jobs have to be in bed by 11.

Then unemplyment was awesome because you know what? I have a seven day weekend!

But then it sucked because I realized that not compartmentalizing my (not)work of blogging to a five-day (not)work-week and leaving weekends free to do non-(not)work related leisure activites led me into this strange existence where the line between the real world and the virtual world was blurred and I started thinking that “hanging out with friends” meant IM-ing with total strangers.

And then it really sucked when the funemployement checks suddenly disappeared. Alright, it wasn’t “suddenly,” but six months sure can creep up on you fast like a nasty case of hives induced by some very aggressive shrimp.

As much as I cried, on my side in the fetal position completely under my down comforter at the foot of my bed, in my sweats that I had been wearing for eleven days straight without laundering during those low, super extreme sucky points of the emotional roller coaster ride, I have to say that I am learning and doing new things that I would never have done before when I was actually sane.

I am very slowly learning how to budget what little funds I have managed to scrape together each month. I have expanded my repertoire of things I cook at home; I have even developed the patience to bake. I am finding out what really interests me, and not whatever the “coolest, new thing” is to be interested in. I remembered how much I loved reading when I was little and have been able to sit down for hours on end with a book. I have forced myself to detach myself from the Internet for at least fifteen minutes a day, when I make myself take a shower.

And one thing I have done that I never thought I could ever do is eat by myself in a restaurant.

It’s not that I have never eaten by myself. Oh, how many nights have I stood half bent over the kitchen sink with a bowl of Special K after a long day at work? How many times have I barely removed the ruffled paper liner in time before inhaling an overgrown muffin in the car on the way to work, leaving behind a thin layer of muffin crumbs on the front of my business-casual button down, slim-cut-for-ladies button down shirt? How many times have I sat at my desk, hunched over my laptop so no wandering co-workers’ eyes can catch me surfing the foodporn sites while mindlessly slurping through an afro of paper shredder residue, aka instant ramen?

Oh yes, I have most certainly eaten alone. In private. By myself, but where no one can see me.

But never out in public. In a restaurant. *scary*

It’s an odd fear, really, because normally, my personality weighs much heavier toward the solo side than the social side. I have always been what you might call a loner, Dottie. A rebel. (Do you know the movie?!) I prefer to live alone rather than with a roommate. In school, I did my best holed up in a dark corner of the library by myself, not with a study group. I always did much better in individual sports like tennis, rather than team sports. At the risk of barring myself from any possibility of recruitment via a random landing of an employer on this blog, I will say that I am not a team player. I do not “team” (v. to work in a team setting). Everyone in the working world tells everyone else that he or she is a great team player. I can’t say it truthfully because though I can function as part of a team without disrupting any sort of cosmic office balance, I can perform effin’ miracles if I am the only person in charge, or the only person.

Eating alone in public is a mentally implosive clash of oxymoronic worlds that is too complicated for me to understand. Alone. Public. See what I mean? Opposites.

I could have gotten something delivered. Heck, I could have ordered pho “to-go.” I could have walked into Pho 99 just up the street from me and picked it up as if I were so busy at work that I only had time to run out, pick up something and rush back to my desk to work on some monster PowerExcelSpreadPoint with embedded Visio diagrams. But come on, who are we fooling here? They would know. They would know by the five-day-unlaundered sweats and the un-pedicured feet in flip flops that I don’t work in an office. They’re not stupid. They would just know that I was a miserable little girl scurrying out for my one outing a day to pick up mere sustenance to consume at home, alone, watching tv. How sad, they’ll mouth to each other. She’s probably going to go back and watch Maury. Maybe Oprah?

I saved them the guesswork and decided to slink into a chair in the dining room and eat right there. But I still chose a table against the wall. Near the back. Hey, I didn’t want to advertise the fact that I’m a total loser. Damn Freudian typing. I meant “loner.”

At first, it didn’t seem too difficult because I could pretend to be carefully examing themenu that I’ve seen a hundred times and could probably recite from memory. But then the server came and once I made my order, I think I almost might have held onto that menu a little too long as she took it away. I was at a loss. I had no idea what to do with myself. I didn’t have a book or a magazine to ignore the stares, or some printed material to make it look like I was working through lunch.

It was nerve-racking. No, it was terrifying. I was extremely self-conscious. I felt like the staff were huddled behind the counter giggling about the pathetic girl sitting by herself. I felt like every customer in the dining room was looking at me, shaking their heads in pity, wondering why on earth I was sitting there by myself. I looked around at the walls, afraid to make eye contact. I gazed out the window as if in deep-thought. I opened up my purse, as if I were suddenly despeartely in need of something I just couldn’t find, even though my wallet, cel phone, miniature notebook and Palm Pilot were in plain view.

In my logical brain, I know that no one, not a single “they” even cared that I was sitting there by myself. I doubt that a single person even looked at me, other than the server who took my order and brought my bowl of tofu pho to me. In fact, there might have been at least one or two others singly enjoying their pho or shrimp summer rolls, or banh mi. But I felt self-conscious the whole time.

Once the food was there, it was better, since I could turn my eyes and attention toward the bowl, but it’s not easy keeping your face down in the rising steam for ten minutes. I had to come up for air every once in a while, and I’m sure my face, bright red and glistening with condensed steam and sriracha-induced sweat wasn’t a pretty sight. That made me even more self-conscious.

It was all over in probably less than 12 minutes, but it felt like an hour. I paid the check and practically ran out of there. I am such a dork.

But at least I can say I did it. I ate by myself. Yay for me.

Now as far banh mi is concerned, I tried it on a separate occasion, eating at Pho 99 with another person. I know that people are wild about banh mi, but I don’t get it. It tasted like pho, without the broth or noodles. To me, banh mi just a sandwich with a slightly different flavor that comes from the pickled vegetables. Nothing more.

I’ll stick with pho. But let’s go together, okay? Eating by myself just isn’t fun.

Pho 99
11819 Wilshire Boulevard (@ Granville)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
310.312.7881

** a year ago today, i made a HORRIBLE CONFESSION by adding water **

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  • KT

    MMMMM. I love bahn mi. I would eat it with friends or alone any day.

    They have really good bahn mi at Gingergrass ….

  • Catherine

    Try KP’s Deli in Silver Lake! Nice guy. Good food. :)

  • Daily Gluttony

    ok ms. delish, i don’t know if we were separated at birth or what. same birthday, same hair salon (tho’ i’ve recently followed my stylist to a new salon now) and now the same fear of eating out alone??? scary.

    i got over this fear of mine last year–i went to daikokuya by myself for lunch one saturday afternoon. and since then i’ve eaten by myself quite a few times and it’s a piece of cake! (well, sorta)

  • onetomato

    every now and then, i feel the urge to wine and dine myself with a dinner and a movie…i really do. but i always chicken out.

  • sarah

    kt and cat: why are the good places so far away?!

    daily gluttony: which salon?!?

    onetomato: now see, wining and dining is a different story altogether. i could do a simple half hour lunch of pho. but sitting down in a tablecloth-‘ restaurant, by candlelight…i have to work up to that.

  • Marianne

    Sarah, I relate all too well to your tales of unemployment anxiety, the ups and downs, all of it. As for the dining alone, it can be really fun. I always, always take a magazine or something along, or I sit at the bar (if there is one) to eat.

  • Daily Gluttony

    you don’t remember?!? umberto, silly! you mentioned it in one of your posts way back when…don’t remember which one. i’m now going to lukaro down the street which has a bit more of a quiet, serene atmosphere, but i kinda miss the bustling “beauty factory” vibe of umberto.

  • Skip

    Pee Wee’s Big Adventure…nice!

  • sarah

    marianne: but see, i think i would be able to sit at a bar with a mag. that seemed too easy. it is SCARY to sit alone at a giant table where it is very clear that you are eating BY YOURSELF. LOL!

    daily gluttony: of COURSE i remember umberto ;) i was just wondering with whom you ran off!

    skip: oh skip. you, my dear, complete me.

  • Jessica

    Dining solo/a is one of the great joys in life. Especially when it’s a break from a busy social life and demands of spouse and family. My favorite meals out alone are lunches in particular that involve just me and a magazine, preferably a back issue of the New Yorker I’ve been sitting on for weeks. And counters are always best.

  • duckduckgoose

    It has to be the right kind of restaurant for me. Japanese food with bar service is ideal because you can still order a variety of food (solo dining often means no sharing). You can also drink sake and soon you’re talking to the chef and everbody around you. I do it sometimes to treat myself as someone else mentioned. I had a great meal at Yakatoria on Sawtelle. I sat next to a sushi chef and we shared all our food, talked food and drank sake. You’ll never need the magazine crutch, because you can always be working on your pictures or taking notes.

  • Catherine

    cat: why are the good places so far away?!”

    Well, if you’re gonna travel that far it better be good! lol ;)

  • dorkie

    i share your fear of eating solo. i’ve never done it before… ever. i’ll rather have take out and bring it home. i would think with your social circle, you can surely find a willing eating partner any day! :-)

    anyway, i only have two words in regards to Banh Mi: LEE’S SANDWICHES.

  • KT

    You’re right … eating alone with a book is easy. Eating alone without doing anything else is HARD.

    Even when I was waiting to meet a friend for about five minutes last week at a cafe, I found I had to get out my cell phone and pretend to be doing something on it, because I felt too self-conscious just sitting there.

    I can’t speak for others but the secret for me is that bahn mi IS just a sandwich. But the fact is that I LOVE sandwiches. I love everything about them. So I can hardly resist bahn mi and will even take it over pho. Because I LOVE sandwiches and just LIKE soup.

  • KT

    You’re right … eating alone with a book is easy. Eating alone without doing anything else is HARD.

    Even when I was waiting to meet a friend for about five minutes last week at a cafe, I found I had to get out my cell phone and pretend to be doing something on it, because I felt too self-conscious just sitting there.

    I can’t speak for others but the secret for me is that bahn mi IS just a sandwich. But the fact is that I LOVE sandwiches. I love everything about them. So I can hardly resist bahn mi and will even take it over pho. Because I LOVE sandwiches and just LIKE soup.

  • Jennifer

    *laugh* I am an eating alone virgin. You are so very brave.

    We MUST have pho together next time I’m down.

  • bassbiz

    OMG! All this blogging for this long and it was your first dine alone experience? It definetly feels akward but my last trip to Vegas I did 2 solo dinners (Commander’s Palace and Burger Bar), after that I felt so powerful, that I could go anywhere on my own, LOL. I was comfy with doing weekday breakfasts and lunches solo but doing dinner on your own makes me feel so tense, hehe! Actually I even enjoy movies on my own :) Since Im a fellow westsider, hit me up if you would like some dining company! ;)

  • marissa

    I love eating alone. since I work from home, I try to take myself to lunch solo at least once a week. I also love going to the movies and museums alone – a habit I got into when I lived in ny. certain cities are much more conducive to city dining – and I think LA is one of them. I feel much more comfortable dining solo in LA than I did when I lived in london.

  • Pepper

    Eating alone in a restaurant is one of my favourite things to do, and I rarely bring anything to read or do. In a really good restaurant, you can concentrate on the food more and let your imagination run wild with the experience in a way that you can’t when you are sharing the meal with someone. I always scope out restaurants solo before going with others.

    Check out MFK Fisher’s ‘An Alphabet for Gourmets’ – A is for eating Alone. You can find quotes from this online but reading the whole book is best.

    Stay delicious!

  • Neil

    I totally know what you’re talking about. But I’m surprised that this is new for you. Who have you been going out to eat with all this time? How many friends do you have?

  • s’kat

    I absolutely cannot eat alone without some sort of reading material to keep my occupied.

    I guess, in a pinch, a cigarette would work. Except I don’t smoke, and that would pretty much ruin the enjoyment of the food. Damn.

  • elmomonster

    I LLLLOOOOVE eating alone. I relish it, look forward to it, and even plan out exactly how I can fanangle myself out of a group lunch so that I can do it. At the restaurant, I can enjoy my food. Eat in big bites. Eat in small nibbles. Take as long or as short as I want. But then, I’m a guy. And there’s no stigma about a guy eating alone. A girl eating by herself, on the other hand instantly calls out to herself. A big sign might as well be over her head saying “PREY” or “FRESH MEAT” or worse yet “CAN’T GET A DATE”. So I empathize. Soceital norms suck.

  • Eddie Lin

    I eat alone because nobody wants to eat what I eat. I’m so wonely, so wonely.

    Hey, why not come to the LA Foodblogger bbq this Sunday? You’ll be able to eat with others like you. Not broke and lonely and pathetic parts, but the food loving side of you, that is. You probably don’t even have to bring anything by filling out the no income form before you grab your paper plate. Email me and I’ll get you on the VIP list aka the Very Incredibly Poor list.

    These are jokes…except for the bbq part. That’s for real.

  • Anonymous

    I quiver for the day I could dine alone without the spouse and baby to tend to. I am now shamelessly attending movies (though not on fri or sat – date nights) and go to 24 hour fitness on Ocean Park on Friday eves. But I always make sure I have my ring on on these solo endeaver- somewhat brave but still chicken- shi*.

    Cheers.

  • JuJu

    Hello! I stumbled upon your blog while searching for L.A. foodie sites, and I love it. I feel like you are a kindred spirit. Your pictures are awesome and now I want to go try all the places you’ve been to. Well, the good ones, at least.

  • KILROY_60

    You can never fully enjoy the view from the peaks with traversing through the valleys. And the view of everything is much clearer than on high.

    As to eating out alone, as with so many things in life it’s all about what you make it. Perhaps opportunity is waiting for you to have that seat across the white tablecloth open to have a seat.

    Cheers!
    Kilroy_60
    Fear And Loathing…Dining In Public Alone :-)

    Make a point of stopping by, will you, Sarah. Reading through your post, you should drop a fresh email in my box… {tap} {{tap}} {{{tap}}} ~ Opportunity

  • KILROY_60

    You can never fully enjoy the view from the peaks with traversing through the valleys. And the view of everything is much clearer than on high.

    As to eating out alone, as with so many things in life it’s all about what you make it. Perhaps opportunity is waiting for you to have that seat across the white tablecloth open to have a seat.

    Cheers!
    Kilroy_60
    Fear And Loathing…Dining In Public Alone :-)

    Make a point of stopping by, will you, Sarah. Reading through your post, you should drop a fresh email in my box… {tap} {{tap}} {{{tap}}} ~ Opportunity

  • MarcusH

    For banh mi, I second the vote for Lee’s Sandwiches. Can’t beat the price, and goooooood stuff!

    I eat alone often… upside being that I don’t have to get someone else to agree to my adventures in new cuisines, but like the previous poster said, guys don’t have the same stigma that women do when dining alone.

    Of course, you could just do what many women do — hold your cell phone to your ear the entire time you’re eating. ;)

    …and if you think dining alone is tough, try going to a movie solo. That one still is tough for me to do.

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