BO-DE-GA: Food Choices at the Corner Store

Bodega: The Bronx

Laughs are few and far between for anyone who works in that tough corner of the food world where food security, public health, and urban development issues intersect. Fortunately, the dynamic duo of Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam have been making short, sharp, and extremely funny documentaries about shopping and eating in urban neighborhoods, including this short on bodegas, those infamous corner stores.

Dallas Penn blogs about music, sports, politics and whatever else strikes his fancy (tags include “Black Bullshit” and “Wig Owners” and “Social Upheaval”). His partner in comedy, Rafi Kam, reviews albums and writes features about topics like Baduizm, a contagious disease that strikes the nerve endings of rap artists.

Together, they tackle the finer points of the Bodega Food Pyramid. This short film is a refreshing break from the boring, depressing, and thoroughly condescending material that comes out of many public health agencies. It somehow manages to be affectionately searing.

For anyone out there who has wondered why “certain communities” don’t buy organic fruit or eat more salads, this will be an educational feature. For those who grew up in the Bronx or East St. Louis or South Central L.A., this documentary will hit close–perhaps too close–to home and heart.

Here in Bayview Hunters Point, nonprofit organizations and city agencies have been trying to spread good food with the Good Neighbor project. UK-based Tesco is eyeing a space for one of their newly polished Fresh&Easy markets, grocery stores with smaller footprints that are positioned to enter under-served neighborhoods. There’s been some back and forth, though, as the company has been hesitating to agree to community standards that might cut into their profits. Neighbors are asking them to not sell hard liquor, but Tesco is loathe to give up the very high margins of the alcohol aisle.

At a policy symposium last year, I listened as their frontman pointed out how grateful we should all be that they’re even considering opening a full-service grocery store and creating jobs in a poverty-ridden food dessert. Ask some of the locals, though, how happy they are to have their requests ignored.

And watch Penn and Kam’s “Bodega” to understand, with a smile, what is at stake.

Bodega: The Tenderloin

On a complete tangent, the title of the film reminds me of a Vietnamese restaurant on Larkin Street in San Francisco (another neighborhood that also happens to be facing the community upheavals accompanying many urban redevelopment projects). Yes, service is spotty. And yes, the food is not good across the board. But it’s one of those neighborhood places that has lingered through change and remained popular through several face-lifts and menu tweaks.

Bodega Bistro used to actually serve all three: bo (beef), de (goat) and ga (chicken). Hand-penned signs taped to the wall once advertised their special goat stew, but those are long gone. The name of the restaurant stuck, though, and its menu offers the usual suspects. One dish worth highlighting, though, is bun cha, a specialty of Hanoi.

For first-timers, it might be a bit confusing when the order arrives. A plate of greens and herbs piled high. Some plain rice noodles. Some meat submerged in clear broth. And an empty bowl. None of it looks particular appetizing on its own, but it’s culinary magic when the layers of flavors and textures meld together.

Like many Vietnamese meals, it’s all up to the diner. Combine small amounts of each ingredient in your own bowl, then drizzle a spoonful of sauce over all. If you’ve ordered any type of bun, the refreshing cold noodle salads that’s a popular lunch item in Vietnam, then you’ll have an idea of what bun cha can be. It’s more formal, however, and when done well, truly memorable. The cut and quality of the meat and the freshness of the herbs are what determine the best versions. I wish the food were more consistent here, but two out of three times, it hits the spot.

Now, if only Bodega would bring back its second-syllable goat dishes.

Bodega Bistro
607 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94199
(415) 921-1218
Google Map

Author: Thy Tran

San Francisco-based writer specializing in history and culture of food.

5 thoughts on “BO-DE-GA: Food Choices at the Corner Store”

  1. Thanks for this, Thy. Take it from a Bronx resident, it is 100% accurate and it’s only funny because it’s all true. I am sure Dallas and Rafi could have taken it further and explored the other side of bodega economics: trading in food assistance funds for products like cigarettes, junk food, alcohol, or diapers.

  2. Great post, Thy. I’m not in the Bronx, but up here in Washington Heights, we too have the legendary BO-DE-GA! 5 on every block. That line about “good til 2000-forever” is hysterical because it’s so true. In some of the bad ones, there’s a layer of dust over everything on the shelves, making it feel like an archaeological dig, but with the original inhabitants peculiarly alive.

    Your writeup of Bodega Bistro made me deliriously hungry (as usual).

  3. Thy,
    Much thanks for the love you gave this video. The true story behind this video is that on our first shoot, Cas, Rafi and I were in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx.

    There were NO supermarkets of commercial bank ATM machines. The Hunts point Food Market and the relocated Fulton Fish market are both in Hunts Point but the because they only sell to restaurants the local populace is shut out from the freshest food in the entire city.

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