by Dan Johnson
The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Los Angeles has a history of scorning history.
The appeal is undeniable. Here in Los Angeles, migrants from any which where are free to pick and choose what of their past is worth holding on to and what of it may be thrown on the funeral pyre of forgetting as burnt offering to a modern future.
So goes the predominant philosophy of the past-adverse Angeleno. Yet, after two hundred and thirty five years of unceasing outward growth in this centrifugal city, we find ourselves back here in the city center where you can’t overstate the enchanting presence of history. Though building booms, hill-shaving face lifts and cataclysmic social upheavals may have marred a sense of uninterrupted historical preservation, Downtowners and visitors alike are heirs to a special geography of recollection. Our city’s memory is a postmodern thing—the icons and relics of our collective past lay side by side, each telling its own story out of turn to whoever will listen.
Those eager for the sweet embrace of overlapping yesteryears need look no farther than Ord St. The east-west thoroughfare in today’s Chinatown is named for one E.O.C. Ord—the famed soldier who made a name for himself in the Civil War. If you’re ever on the Upper West Side of New York City, you can find a bust of his likeness overlooking Grant’s Tomb. In the late 1840s, Ord was a military engineer stationed in California. He famously laid out the first American survey of Sacramento. In 1849, he was commissioned to map the then humble ‘burb of Los Angeles for the express purpose of putting a monetary value on public lands that had recently transferred to Yankee ownership.
On Ord St. these days, you can literally taste the length and breadth of the city’s history. No, I’m not advocating licking dust or dumpster drippings—though both substances are arguably iconic Los Angeles sensory phenomenon. I’m talking about cuisine, baby. Ord St. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to historical flavors.
Down at the corner of Ord St. and Alameda St., you will recognize the defining French Dip sandwiches at Philippe’s the Original. The slapdash item of cafeteria innovation bears proud witness to decades of French and Italian diaspora who crossed ocean and continent to call this section of LA home. Up the block a bit, you’ll find Chinese mainstay Phoenix Inn proudly representing this incarnation of Chinatown as it has existed since the 1930s. At the corner of Ord St. and Spring St., the Little Jewel of New Orleans gives po-boy testament to the current wave of culinary adventurism and urban renewal in Downtown. Around the corner on New High, Isabel’s Market sells dirt-cheap sopas and burritos that unknowingly memorialize the one time Sonoratown.
Then there’s My Dung.
Let’s just indulge our eleven-year-old selves for one second. You will come to love My Dung. When you find My Dung in the tiny hovel it occupies, you will give My Dung money and then you will put that slice of My Dung in your stomach. Eventually you will come to understand that My Dung is incredibly tasty. Not only that, My Dung is quick, filling and inexpensive.
For more than two decades, the innocently named produce mini market at the corner of Ord St. and Broadway has been dishing out superlative Banh Mi sandwiches. Located near an established enclave of Vietnamese pharmacies, markets and eateries, My Dung is a living legacy of the influx of Southeastern Asians who made their way to Chinatown Los Angeles in the years after the collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam and the fall of Saigon in late spring 1975.
The market is a humble affair. The sandwich counter in back is barely visible beyond racks of candy and snacks. A tiny carved portrait of a weeping Jesus Christ stands guard above a menu that advertises prices so inexpensive, you might even call them ungodly.
A lithe man with a flowing ponytail tucked beneath a Raiders cap marked with a heart surrounding the silver-stitched word “Al,” tends court up front. He deftly manages customers and his stacks of mangoes and apples while transiting beneath a door fan that is positioned precariously low for someone of my six-foot stature.
There is little standing room. Even occupying the few square feet near the sandwich counter makes you feel self-consciously in the way. Your best bet for seating is to exit the store and park your ass on the curb or hunch by the wall. If you’re like me and you earn the pity of the Raider Nation acolyte, he may just toss you a few produce boxes to sit on.
The arrangement is pretty cut-rate, which is completely fine in light of the fact that a full grilled pork Banh Mi sandwich and a bottle of Arrowhead water runs $3.75. Just to clarify so you don’t suspect a typo or lax coverage—the most expensive sandwich on the menu, a grilled pork Banh Mi, as well as a full compliment of sealed water straight from the aquifers of the San Bernardino Mountains runs you three dollars and seventy five cents or a quarter ‘til four bucks if you think of money like time.
Banh Mi literally translates to “wheat bread.” It is the official taste of colonialism in Vietnam. Today’s blend of cilantro, carrots and cucumber served with mayo, peppers and cold cuts on a baguette is a delightful amalgam of food adapted to utilize indigenous ingredients while serving French tastes. Here on the streets of Chinatown, you can trade in three Washingtons for an incredibly delicious meal that tells the taste buds a sensory history of French insecurity after the establishment of the British Raj in neighboring India and the presumptuous imposition of Catholicism as a means of establishing political subservience (something which Los Angeles knows a bit about). Yummy!
Not that there’s anything but good vibes at My Dung. The legacy of Al Davis’ famous work ethic lives on in a market that proudly opens its doors every day of the year except Christmas and Easter. They will happily serve you one of the most cost-efficient and gut-friendly sandwiches in all of Downtown from 7:30am to 6pm Monday through Saturday and 7:30am to 2:30pm on Sundays. Yes, those hours are rendered in military time.
Tourists, take heed. Locals, look here. Your city tells its story in tastes. Down yonder on a street named for a famous dead soldier in the core of a red-shifting metropolis, you will find ample opportunities to meditate on the flavor of Los Angeles’ heritage. Hark, for ours is a story of immigrants written in a digestive language that spins verses from morsels baked by historical processes far and wide across the fine globe.
I award My Dung a coveted #2 on the binary and a “Key to the city to honor excellence in an unintentionally scatological titled food establishment that also anchors an unusually symbolic strip of Downtown culinary real estate.”
Absorb My Dung at 314 Ord St.