Twice a week, most months, for the past three years, I’ve decamped around lunch time in convenience marts and pop-ups and diners and bars lining New Orleans for yaka mein. These places are usually full of black folks, on break, in their thirties and forties. They’ll pull up to the register with scratch-offs, or half-eaten po’boys. Other times, white people pass through on Yelp expeditions, visiting from out of town, flashing the cashier with reviews on their phones. Mostly everyone’s looking for booze, or a winning ticket, or a lucky break, but if you ask around for yaka mein they just might give that to you, too.
Yaka mein doesn’t have a clean translation. There’s not even a consistent spelling. It’s yackamein, and yaki mein, and yock a mein, but it’s also just yock. Some locals call it Old Sober, derived from its role as a hangover cure. When it’s done right, the broth owes a lot to tonkotsu’s eye-opening saltiness, and the fillings are akin to menudo’s in how way the meal just sort of opens your mouth up. What’s consistent are the ingredients: a beefy broth, leavened by soy sauce. Seasoned with some cayenne pepper. You add a little bit of paprika, garlic, and green onions. Toss in a thimbleful of onion powder. Maybe a helping of sriracha. Afterwards, you top that with a glowing hard-boiled egg. Spaghetti noodles fill out the dish, soaking up the broth, floating just under the meat, and you could easily just call the dish soup or whatever but that would be pretty fucking lazy.
Depending on where you’re eating it, the yaka mein might come served with a spoon and a ladle. But you’re just as likely to end up with chopsticks jutting from a styrofoam cup; because another thing about it is that it’s a dish born of necessity and comfort. You take your yaka mein with whatever else is around, and what’s easy to maneuver, depending on who’s present and maneuvering. I’ve eaten yaka mein outside of gay dance clubs in red Solo cups. I’ve eaten yaka mein beside day-workers on break by Canal Street. Once, at this block party in Central City, where brownstones pave the roads and the gravel’s plastered with asteroid-sized craters, I took a helping of yaka mein in a bowl of borrowed tupperware. I’ve eaten yaka mein outside of festivals (for better or worse, I’ve never paid for a festival in New Orleans), and I’ve slurped it in the center of second-line parades, and twirled the noodles across to-go plates in fried chicken joints, and one time I was sitting on the steps outside of this convenience store, watching the street car, reeling from some fuck-up or another, when these charter school kids asked me why I was eating from a cup.
They were young and black. They wore about three hoodies apiece. And when I told them it was yaka mein, they nodded—they knew.
Yaka mein has a few different origin stories. No one agrees on any of them and some make more sense than others.
In one iteration, black soldiers came up with the dish after returning to Louisiana from the Korean War. They missed the cuisine abroad, but lacked the ingredients to replicate it—so they tried recreating the flavors with whatever they had; hence the spaghetti noodles in lieu of dangmyeon, and cajun seasoning instead of sesame seeds. In another origin story, the dish grew from New Orleans’s now-extinct Chinatown, as the product of migrants who’d journeyed from California to find work laying railroad tracks. A lot of these workers were young. Of course they mixed with the locals. Most of these locals were black. Time went on. Eventually, everyone’s palates folded, and their collective broths mingled, until the resulting liquid volleyed between cayenne and garlic and rice wine and soy sauce and sesame oil.
But those are only two possible histories. Everyone who cares has got their own. A buddy of mine swears the recipe was created to appease drunken loiterers around Chinese businesses. Another friend told me it was the product of a lover’s quarrel, not entirely divorced from the catalyst of hot chicken. And I don’t know the truth. Nobody bothered to write it down. But the reality of yaka mein, like literally anything else, is likely somewhere in the middle—that it’s the product of cultures converging, and preferences clashing, and folks from around the world coming together to fuck and raise kids and share kitchens and make a life with whatever’s around.
It’s unlikely that yaka mein will ever gain notoriety beyond a certain sect of New Orleanians. Partly because of the dish’s indebtedness to lore. Partly because of the drinking culture that ultimately fuels it. And there are probably some regional factors, and questions of history and cuisine, but I think the biggest barrier is that it bends the imagination. It is simply hard to picture. Because there are plenty of places on Earth where the sight of black and brown people, huddled outside of a dive bar at midnight, hunched over noodles with chopsticks and spoons and ladles and cigarettes could play out, but the American South is not one of those places. Except for when it is.
There are yaka mein spots all over New Orleans. They’re mostly holes in the wall. You can find yaka mein in patches around the French Quarter (sometimes). Depending on the day, you can find it in Central City and the Tremé, two of the city’s blacker hubs. You’ll find it on the eastern end of the city, which supports a substantial Vietnamese population; or you can find it scattered around the Westbank, just across the river; or, in patches, throughout the suburb of Metairie, Greater New Orleans’s more economically and culturally diverse extension. Until pretty recently, you just had to ask around. You really only knew if you knew.
For my last spree in the city, I thought I’d try to visit them all: every yaka mein counter and stand across the parish. I only had a few weeks left in Louisiana. Figured I was done splitting time between cities. Yaka mein felt as integral to my time there as anything else—its multiculturalism and malleability seemed ubiquitous as Mardi Gras, gumbo, or the rest of it—because that was the South that I cared about. One that accepted and blended and made a way. It’s what I’d take with me when I packed up and left, when my friends from wherever the fuck threw rocks at everything else in the region.
But the thing about a dish so tied to its locality is that you’ll never, really, eat everything you’re trying to find. It exists unlisted across the city. Across its kitchens and storefronts and tabletops. So I tried to run the gamut, at least for a day or two, but the place I kept coming back to is on the corner of Broad and Canal.
Those hundred yards or so of Broad Street, at the intersection of Canal, might be one of the most interesting patches of space in New Orleans. Which makes it one of the most interesting patches of space in the South. Which makes it one of the most interesting patches of space in the country. It’s stupefyingly diverse. It almost doesn’t make any sense. There are Honduran barbers and roaming gypsies and black hair salons and startling poverty and taco trucks and seven or eight barbershops—each of them catering to a highly specific population—and this little Latin grocery store and a gentrified grilled cheese deli and a streetcar stop by the light. The trolley ferries people south, towards the gentrified splendor of the Quarter, or north, towards the affluence of City Park.
The area is, unambiguously, about as clear a picture of the South’s future as any you’ll ever see. It’s a picture of where the region’s going, and where the country’s going, despite or even because of the efforts of everyone opposing it. There’s the South that the NAACP warns you not to pass through, and there’s the South that very nearly elected a pedophile to the Senate; and then there’s the South that blends the influences of black slaves, Chinese laborers, Vietnamese refugees, Honduran day-workers, and everyone else who wanders along, simmering them for a half a day, only to pour them in a styrofoam cup, just fat enough for you to slurp from one hand while your Tall Boy sits in the other. One of those Souths existing doesn’t make the others any less true. Each of them is someone’s ideal. And we’re left somewhere in the middle. It’s evidence of our adolescent nation growing up in real time, which is lovely and also fucked up but that’s how all of that looks right now.
And then there’s my place. It’s a Vietnamese grocery store that happens to sell everything. I’ve bought craft beer, cigarettes, a fidget spinner, beef jerky, banh mis, tomatoes on fried rice, and who knows how many bowls of yaka mein. Usually, I’ll eat at the counter, which is just tall enough to watch the family that owns the place. Sometimes, I’ll sit outside. Sometimes, I’ll eat the bowl in a cup in my car. But this last time, I’d just gotten my yaka mein, I was taking a gram of the tray that it came on, and an older black woman asked what I was eating.
She was waiting for her own food. When I told her, she looked entirely unbothered.
“Yaka what?” she said.
“It’s like soup”, I said.
“Oh”, she said, “like phở”.
“You ever had that?” she asked. “My daughter loves it. She brought it home one night, and I told her I don’t know what that is. That’s not what I asked for. And spending my money! She works downtown, so she’s always bringing food in, things I don’t know. One night she brought home wings and called them Korean. They tasted black to me. I told her to just stop by Willie Mae’s, and she said we had that all the time. She said I needed to eat out more.”
(And here she flung her hand across the restaurant, as if to show that that’s what she was doing.)
“But that phở,” said the woman. “Listen. It was something. Now it’s all I eat on my lunch. Now I’m always here. And I just didn’t know. I wouldn’t have known if my daughter hadn’t brought it.”
“And that,” she said, pointing at my bowl. “That right there I’ll have to try. They could be cousins. Crazy. Probably taste just alike.”
The woman motioned towards her bowl, and she nodded towards mine—and it was true, she was right: they looked profoundly, brilliantly, alike.