A few months ago, I decided to arrive into Chicago a few hours early before grabbing drinks with a friend. I love to walk, and cities are the best place for it. The people fascinate me, with different clothes and projected images and agendas written on their faces. The shops and smells and idle chatter are spilling over onto the streets. I could walk around cities for days.
While I was traveling for 2 years, my favorite day in a new city was Day 1. I put on some comfortable clothes, grabbed a map, and started walking. I’d walk for 6-8 hours that day, soaking in the feel of the city, figuring out where the major tourist attractions were, taking note of tiny restaurants and hidden coffee shops that looked enticing. It was a great introduction to a city. I miss that.
With my few extra hours in Chicago, I decided to also grab dinner before I met my friend. I wanted something different, something I wouldn’t normally go for. Something that could inspire my cooking, as I’d been feeling a bit flat in the kitchen lately. When I caught sight of a restaurant advertising Vietnamese sandwiches, I headed right in. It was a small place with exposed brick walls and eclectic art. An absent young woman sat distractedly behind the counter. She didn’t even seem to notice me as I stood behind the register, waiting for her to take my order. As she wasn’t much help when asked for help with the menu, I resorted to a large hand drawn diagram of the sandwich on a chalkboard hanging on the wall behind me. I wonder if she was so tired of answering the question she had decided to just ignore it and hope people had learned how to use context clues to figure it out themselves. At any rate, bread, pickled daikon and carrots, mayo, jalapeño, cilantro, meat of choice stared down at me from above, neatly labeled. I caught her eye with a wave and a smile and indicated I’d like the lemongrass chicken. She barely acknowledged the gesture as she called out something to the back kitchen, and held out her hand for payment without making eye contact. As I sat down at a wall-facing bar, I wondered what had happened to her to make her this apathetic. Was she always this way? Was it a defense mechanism? I was deep in thought as my sandwich arrived. I pulled off the wrappings and took a bite. In addition to the delicious flavors overwhelming my taste buds, I had an ‘aha!’ moment. This was a taco trapped in a sandwich’s body.
It’s funny what inspires us. Inspiration is individual and unique, touching a unique part of our psyche and triggering us to act. It’s fickle and unpredictable. I often pointedly pursue inspiration for writing or cooking unsuccessfully, only to be hit with a brilliant idea in an off moment.
An always-on, active lifestyle can lead to an overwhelming sense of guilt when we procrastinate or indulge laziness. This is bad. Not only can forcing yourself to be active and productive be harmful to your creativity, it doesn’t even work. Creativity and inspiration come from a place of mulling and rumination, not forceful whip-snapping. Give yourself a period of time every day to stop, reflect on what you’ve filled your mind with, and indulge your mind-wandering. – Erik Ravenscraft, Life Hacker
So, after roaming the streets and thinking entirely too hard about the history of the woman behind the counter, I was hit with unexpected inspiration holding a sandwich in a tiny restaurant facing a brick wall. As a boy becomes a man, as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, this sandwich would soon become a taco.
Fruition is a beautiful thing. I’ve made these delicious liberated Asian fusion tacos a couple times now, and have added a little to the original sandwich diagram I observed sketched on a chalkboard. Avocados add a creaminess, srirachi an additional flavor to the mayonnaise, and pomegranate a burst of sweetness. A healthy, fresh, unique meal, the beautiful product of inspiration.
Vietnamese TacosPrint Recipe
- 2 stalks lemon grass, cut into 2-3 inch sections
- 1 tbsp curry powder
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 1 inch fresh ginger, sliced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp chili paste (or srirachi)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 chicken breasts
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 3 cups water
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 small daikon radish
- 3 medium carrots
- 2 jalapeños
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 2-3 tsp srirachi
- Juice of 3-5 limes
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 avocado
- 1 pomegranate
- 8 - 12 corn tortillas
Place the chicken breast into a ziplock bag. Pound to an even thickeness. Add the lemongrass, sliced ginger, chili paste, curry powder, turmeric, oil and salt into the bag with the chicken. Coat chicken evenly. Marinate in refrigerator for 3 hours to overnight.
An hour before you plan to eat, take the chicken out of the fridge and prepare the pickling liquid. Combine the vinegar, 2 cups water, 1/2 tbsp salt and 1 tbsp sugar into a small saucepan. Heat over low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Peel the daikon and carrots, and then grate them. In a large bowl, pour the picking liquid over the grated vegetables. Place in refrigerator.
Use a julienne slicer to thinly slice jalapeños. Pick leaves off of cilantro bunch. Open the pomegranate and remove about half of the seeds into a small bowl.
Combine mayonnaise, srirachi and lime juice (2-3 limes) to make the aoili. Salt to taste. Adjust amounts of srirachi and lime juice as you like it. Place in fridge.
Heat a large oven safe pan over medium high heat and preheat the oven to 350F. Once pan is hot, place chicken in the pan and cook for 5-7 minutes. Flip breasts over and continue to cook for another 5-7 minutes. Place pan in oven for about 15 minutes or until chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165F. Remove from oven and place on a cutting board. Allow to cool for about 5 minutes before slicing thinly.
While chicken is cooling, thinly slice the avocado. Squeeze the juice of one lime over the top. Salt.
Heat a griddle or grill pan over high heat. Toast the sides of the tortillas.
To assemble, place chicken, avocado, pickled vegetables on a tortilla. top with jalapeño, cilantro and pomegranate. Drizzle with srirachi aoili.