“So take the mint leaf, put it in the palm of your hand and then smack it with your other hand,” he said, demonstrating. I stared at him dubiously before accusing him of trying to make me look silly my first time eating pho. “No, really,” my date insisted. “You have to smack it. It releases the mint’s flavor.”
Looking around the bustling Mai’s Restaurant, I felt very much out of my element. Not only was this my first bowl of pho, it was my first introduction to Vietnamese food. My date, on the other hand, was fearlessly adding copious amounts of mint, hoisin sauce and red chili pepper sauces to his pho do bien.
When our server came over to check on us, she noticed my hesitation. She quickly decorated my pho chay without asking, expertly adding lime, mint (which she, too, smacked) and various sauces, all while simultaneously explaining what she was adding. My date held his hand over his mouth as he chuckled, momentarily taking a break from his food to tease me. “I told you,” he smirked. “Gotta smack it.”
This would be the first date of many where he introduced me to food outside of my comfort zone. The small circumference of that comfort zone became apparent when he asked my favorite food and I answered, “breakfast.” While I was known to frequent Tex-Mex establishments and drive-thrus, my date was inclined to restaurants that speak to the diversity of Houston’s dining options.
Insisting that there’s “no such thing as too spicy,” my date searched the menu at Mayuri for the items with the most chili peppers next to it, finally settling on gobi and vindaloo. Two different plates of the same vindaloo arrived—one spicy, one extremely spicy. He physically sweated due to the intense Indian spices in the dishes, but constantly praised their deliciousness.
Our server checked on us—it’s good, yes?—and looked pointedly at my date—not too spicy, is it? I, on the other hand, was persuaded to cut the mild spice of the gobi with lemon to sooth my flaming mouth. “I’m from the Caribbean, darlin’,” was his explanation.
While sitting on the European-esque front patio of Mi Luna in Rice Village, my palate was pleasantly surprised to learn that Spanish food is nothing like Mexican food. I delighted in discovering tapas, leaning eagerly forward when the croquetas de espinacas and patatas verde arrived, and then again when my date shared more stories about all the different places he'd lived.
Mochi green tea ice cream at Asahi Sushi changed my understanding of dessert. As I poked the spongey outside of the ice cream and questioned its legitimacy, my date asked me about my day, about work, about a phone call I had with my mom. With each passing meal, I felt myself becoming more comfortable with sharing my own stories.
A dinner of unexpectedly high-class proportions at The Melting Pot led to me eating Caesar salad sprinkled with parmesan-encrusted pine nuts and discovering the unlikely (and not particularly appealing) companion to cheese fondue: the apple slice. As I struggled to keep my slices of fruits and vegetables on the small fondue trident, my date told me about a class trip where they'd watched leatherback turtles hatch, thus causing me to accuse the American education system of cheating me out of an adorable experience.
This week, my date texts me asking where I want to eat for dinner. I ponder the weighty question before texting back, “Somewhere we haven’t been before.”