for the love of goats
Ring of Fire Maestro Dobel Tequila. Tarragon. Pomegranate. Jalapeño. Lime. Ginger.
Pineapple Right Side Up Flor de Caña Añejo. Butter-Infused Plantation Pineapple. Clove. Cinnamon. Allspice. Nutmeg.
The first time I ate at Girl & The Goat I was in love.
I can’t remember a single thing Trick and I had back in 2013. We must have ordered the pig face and whatever our industry friends had suggested over post shift gin (me) and vodka (her). What I can remember from that summer afternoon is how Trick’s hair resembled a slightly updated version of old school Charlie’s Angels feathered and how when she smiled, I let myself imagine what her laugh lines would look like in twenty, then thirty years.
What I can remember is standing in the evening sun just before twilight, Trick asking if our date lived up to my expectations, and me kissing her outside the revolving doors.
Yes. Absolutely. Yes.
Girl & The Goat opened in the summer of 2010, the year after I moved to Chicago, but that summer I was back in Denver, reading reviews of the restaurant and interviews with Chef Stephanie Izard in between cater-waiting and serving at the Greek restaurant where I began to love pineapple in my gyros, trading something similarly acidic and sweet for the devil’s fruit that is raw tomatoes. She was a couple years out from her win on Top Chef, a season I had religiously watched. Chef Izard was the hometown hero who triumphed in a season that celebrated Chicago’s food, and I was a fan already without ever having a bite. She had this wryly funny and grounded energy on the show, and all I wanted was an opportunity to see if the plate could match the screen.
My Eastern astrological animal is the goat. If you ask my Chinese side, I’m a metal goat, and if you ask my Vietnamese side, I am made of earth not steel. Call it the difference between the colonizer and the jungle in me. My Libra heart, though, pulses to the drumbeat of both, so for harmony’s sake, I acknowledge the traits of my dual bloodline—artistic talent and a certain habit of dancing between bluntness and tact. All goats love their community loyally, fiercely to the point of self-sacrifice, but they are nimble creatures, survivors. “Izard,” as it turns out, is French for a species of mountain goat from the Pyrenese Mountains—more accurately a chamois, a sort of cross between goat and antelope. Hybridity comes in many forms.
Gratitude motivates my last meal there, coalescing with my anticipation of her enjoying her first time at the restaurant. We both have a desire, for just this winter night, to stop the clock and indulge in well-earned relaxation. For her serpentine heart and my caprine mind to have a respite.
mr. potato bread chili cheddar butter. chive yogurt.
calamari bruschetta clam baguette. goat milk ricotta. goat bacon. green apples.
Bà Ngoại grew bird’s eye chilis in a pot in the dining room that we only used during big family parties. I remember the first time I bit into one, the sweetsharp tang that turned me into a lifelong spiceaholic. They’re easy to grow, but my family’s all green thumbs so what do I know? Decades later I still remembered that rush of heat, the burn that lingered as I consumed more, the capsaicin-soaked adrenaline that felt remarkably like the intensity of first love.
To start we order our cocktails and the potato bread half for the reference (The punnery of olive yu(zu) focaccia) and half for the fact that despite her love of pickled everything else, she hates olives. This is truly one of the greatest compromises of our relationship, I joke, putting my faith in a woman who detests olives and is skeptical of calamari. But the chunks of potato and the cheesy butter are delectably distracting and that she leaves the bread butts for me because they’re my favorite part…well I guess it’s a manageable one after all.
On our second and final visit together to the restaurant, half a year after our shared first, Trick and I were mending fences over missed birthdays and the static-freeze-static of a Skype connection.
My third time at the restaurant a year after, with one of my dearest friends, Linxi, erased the taste of Trick’s unsaid apologies and bittersweet endings that lingered in the warm, flaky dough of goat empanadas past. The meal with Linxi was an early afternoon affair, summer sun glinting over slices of baby octopus in my favorite of the motherland’s ingredients, nước mắm. I couldn’t help but love a chef more for using fish sauce well. It’s a far too maligned ingredient, and poor Linxi listened to me wax rhapsodic about it while we waited for our next dish. But years living together had accustomed us to the rhythms of our rants, and she laughed when I needed her to. And that was enough.
“Of course, you’re a goat,” she says smirking at me and leaning into my chair. “So stubborn.”
I pout. “Excuse you. That’s perseverance…you say it like it’s a bad thing.”
She laughs and takes another sip of her Ring of Fire, savoring the tequila. We are quiet for a moment as we both watch the chefs’ line and the pass directly in front of us. A beat. My bottom lip resolutely juts out. The snake woman says, “See? Stubborn.”
(2) Ring of Fire
sautéed green beans fish sauce vinaigrette. cashews.
hamachi crudo chili-soy vinaigrette. finger hots. pickled kumquats. puffed black rice.
Fish sauce needs three things: fish, salt, and time.
My father’s sister owned a fish sauce factory before the last war before they all became boat people. Picture vats upon vats of fish fermenting in salt, stirred daily. The solids are strained from the liquid months later, and this liquid bakes in the sun in large ceramic bowls until a salty crust forms. Then the remaining liquid is transferred to an urn or a barrel where it can sit for a few more months or even years. Want something lighter, sweeter, and less salty? Let the nước mắm age. Good things, good food come to those who wait, those who sweat and put the work in.
There are four seats on the chef’s line, two on either end of the open kitchen. We walk the expanse of the dining room, passing through rows of dim lights and wooden tables. They seat us where the pastry chef and the sous chef responsible for appetizers are working. I am embarrassingly excited to be this close to the action. Inches separate us from the chefs whose work at this point I have admired for years. Here we get a close look at some of the dishes we didn’t order as they emerge and runners appear swiftly to bring them to the appropriate tables. A couple of bites into our crudo I don’t know if I can come back to Girl & The Goat and not eat on the line.
Conversations are best, I think, when we embrace our most tangential selves, and she and I are both actors, performers, storytellers. As much as we are watching them, the chefs are our audience, and we play on this stage, unafraid to be loud as we ramble through polyamorous misadventures and run extended metaphors into the ground. We can see their grins as we land punchlines and well, what actor doesn’t need a little validation? The truth is, though, we don’t need their gaze. This is exactly how we are when we are alone, sneaking chuckles and provoking eye rolls and exaggerated sighs. We commit wholeheartedly to our own show, our bits.
Ring of Fire
Local 75 Chicago Distilling Company Ceres Vodka. CH Goat Gin. Sparkling Wine. Black Cardamom. Yuzu. Lemongrass.
confit goat belly bourbon butter. lobster and crab. fennel.
seared diver scallops toasted miso-brown butter aioli. blood orange. smoked beet. pistachio.
wood oven roasted pig face sunny side egg. tamarind. cilantro. red-wine maple. potato stix.
“Now I know what love is.”
She stares at her fork, at the goat confit, and this time the chefs audibly laugh with us. I know this woman loves good food and has the palate to tell the difference—it’s why I both love to cook for her and always endeavor to impress, but I have never seen this dreamy of a smile curve between those cheeks. We may have been joking about how long it’s been since either of us have been in love and wondering if it’s something we are even looking for, but in this moment, I briefly believe she has truly fallen for the unexpectedly perfect combination of goat and shellfish and bourbon.
Our hands meet, and she squeezes. “Thank you for choosing me for—”
“Well, who could stand in the way of fate and love at first bite?”
Me and Vivyan, my cousin, sat with our backs to the windows at the front of the restaurant so we could see the line, and maybe it was the sun that made the fangirls in us blossom, but here we were craning our necks to determine if that curly brunette was in fact Chef Izard expediting. She was, and we perched on the edge of our dark wood chairs and watched her and the entire crew, like we used to watch our mothers and our aunties and our grandmother move around the home and the kitchen. Similar dances I thought, people in tune with one another, familiar and laughing, compass bearing to the same true north, good food. The difference, of course, was that the cacophony at my grandmother’s house was about twenty times louder than the team at Girl & The Goat.
But Đỗ women always did like to announce themselves. Why simmer when you can boil?
Some people want a love that will split you open, leaving you spilling everywhere, the way yolk runs from an egg, an eruption given the right knife. The pig face dish is served with a sunny side egg floating atop a hash of potatoes and pig cheeks, cilantro, sauced with red-wine maple. It’s decadent. Heart-stopping. You take a spoon or a knife and break the egg, mix everything together. I always do the breaking, but it’s not the cut that I find alluring. The yolk sinking into the nooks and crannies between the potatoes and the pork, slowly and steadily becoming the glue that unites the disparate—that’s my kind of love. Intrinsic. Inevitable.
The meal with Vivyan was the only group outing I had at the restaurant. Along with her then boyfriend, now husband, we were joined by a few of his college golf team buddies. Her husband, David, had excellent, adventurous taste in food, and like my family had trained me, I used the meal to take the measure of the man. If you were going to keep up with Vivyan, a brain wasn’t enough, you needed the taste buds and the passport to match. After several courses and the dinner the day before, I was sold on his love even if he did prefer Avec over Girl & The Goat. Perfection would have been suspicious.
Scent sinks me into my memories. The bright scent of green papaya tangled with basil and mint and the slightest whiff of incense is my grandmother. The subtle rose is what dominates my mother’s lotion. The crispy rice paper smell of egg rolls just ready to be pulled from the fryer reminds me of my father’s hands, dark and deft as he crouches on our back porch.
On the line, I inhale, and the tang of the apple giardiniera against the slivers of goat in someone else’s empanadas take me five years back to long-gone first love, to iris and clove. The sweet citrus of the blood orange at the pastry station reminds me of a friend who loves whiskey as much as me. But it’s the aroma of brown sugar caramelizing next to me, comforting warmth, that encapsulates this moment. I breathe deep and anchor my world.
Morning Ritual Creyente Mezcal. Ancho Chile. Coffee Bitters. Vanilla-Maple. Lemon.
Thyme is Honey Old Forester Bourbon. Cynar. Apple. Pear. Lemon. Thyme.
foxglove pasteurized cow milk. Tulip Tree Creamery. Indianapolis, IN.
Years later Izard is now an Iron Chef. Girl & The Goat still consistently ranks in the top of Chicago and national lists, the root of her expanding empire. Little Goat, a diner, across the street. Her take on Chinese food: Duck Duck Goat further down. The soon-to-open Peruvian restaurant, Cabra, which, of course, means goat.
I’ve eaten at all the others, but Girl & The Goat remains my favorite of her restaurants, quite possibly my favorite restaurant in Chicago. As I have wandered Chicago’s neighborhoods, planted my own dreams in the cityscape, and eaten at hot spots and holes in the wall, it’s this restaurant that I always recommend for people who want pampering without some of the ridiculous formality of fine dining. Attentive service, inventive food, and a damn fine cocktail menu, what else do you need?
I confess to a practice of pushing the boundaries of more. And in this, though not in all things, she and I are the same.
So we decide to test the stretch of our bellies and turn our dinner into a five hour affair. We’ve ordered another round of cocktails, mixing our liquors, bringing in smoky mezcal and a wintry bourbon to play. I rest my head on her shoulder as we ponder the dessert menu.
“Is two desserts and a cheese too much? Are we being…”
“Gluttonous?” I grin. “I think we should call it appreciating the menu.”
She laughs leaning her head against mine. The bigger challenge is choosing two of the four desserts and being planted at the pastry station has only made every option seem mouthwatering. We convince ourselves that another round of the crudo would be the best way to prepare for sweetness, and, ultimately, Chef Iwata, on pastry, plates us half portions of the two other desserts, adding extra blood orange for good measure. A woman after our own voracious hearts.
For all my goatheadedness and survivor’s practicality, I confess to being an optimist, or a realist who dreams in the colors of idealism. This dinner, this night, is more than gratitude; it is hope in the new year of 2018 for an end to the bad luck, injuries, and grief of the past year. Hope that her plans and schemes for us in the distant summer sun find fruition. More drinks betray these secret wishes, lure them into the open, where they tremble, blinking, half-formed. Nervous anticipation yearning for sustainability in our hands. Persistent creatures, my heart’s desires, but perhaps too patient.
I never claimed to be more than fortune’s fool.
When 2019 comes, my formerly estranged brother, from a thousand miles away, will give me another opportunity at a meal there, an instruction to nourish myself. With that single message, nostalgia will warm my bed until these meals—especially the last with her—permeate my dreams, fractured flashes appearing out the corner of my eye as I chart the breadth of my eidetic subconscious.
Later we will both describe this as the best meal of our lives. Even after our becomes her life and my life. This will still be true. And that’s something to hold on to, remembrance upon which the goat and the snake coincide.
chocolate pavlova says-a-me! caramel chocolate sauce. sesame whip. black sesame brittle & ice cream.
caramel corn and malt balls vanilla malt ice cream. popcorn caramel. chocolate magic shell.
sticky tasty crunchy toffee yummy cake sweet potato cake. toffee sauce & crunch. brown butterscotch ice cream. gooseberry.
honey and pine nut tart montamore ice cream. blood orange caramel.
According to the tử vi, the Vietnamese almanac, each of the elements (earth, metal, fire, water, wood) has multiple variants. I am an earth goat, but more specifically, the earth of roadways, lộ bàng thổ. Mine signifies a disciplined and principled personality, a lover of intellect and investigator of emotion. She is a đại lâm mộc snake, an old forest wood, stubborn and persistent, emotionally volatile, protective of others, but most of all, herself.
In the basic elemental cycle, wood overcomes earth, its roots tearing into the dirt. This is even more true in the case of the road and the forest where the expansion of one means the reduction of the other unless they can cooperate and support each other’s growth outward. If we follow my fatherland, she is earth and I am metal, and metal emerges new from earth’s embrace.
I don’t know what to believe.
I don’t know what I want to believe.
This is what I know.
A thousand meals will never erase the magic of the first taste.
Let inspiration combine the unexpected flavors.
Food is affection and care, and, yes, sometimes love. But not always.
Find joy where you can when you can. It is fleeting.
We leave, pass by Little Goat on our way to the Green Line, and I glance at our reflections in the glass—quiet, sated, snowflakes shimmering on our lashes.
Bound for home.
Aimy Tien is a Chicago-based performer, writer, and producer who focuses on bringing the stories of people of color and marginalized groups to the page, stage, and screen. She is a proud company member of 2nd Story and the Co-Director of Operations for Women of the Now. They received a creative writing fellowship from the Luminarts Cultural Foundation, and have completed residencies with VONA, Luminarts, and SWARM. Her collection, Mosaic, was one of the top entries for the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award. Previous work can be found in The Manifest-Station, WirehouseCo, The Wheel, The Character Project, and other publications. For more information about their current projects and other work, please visit AimyTien.com.