Page 50 of Bayou Hero

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Don’t let the place fool you, he’d said when he’d first told her about Mama’s Table. It was in the middle of the block, a narrow storefront between two abandoned shops. The menus had hung in the windows so long that the food in the photographs was washed-out and strangely hued, but the smells when he opened the door were heavenly.

“I’ve passed this place dozens of times. How did I miss it?”

Landry shook his head. “I thought you could track food like a bloodhound.” He pulled off his glasses and ball cap and ran his fingers through his hair. “I usually sit there.”

He directed her to a small table for two halfway to the back and not ten feet from the cash register. Did Mama and Huong like to keep an eye on him?

Alia opened the menu and gave a happy sigh. “I think I’ll start with one of everything and see where to go from there.” Catching his amused look, she grinned. “Such a goal might break a lesser person, but I am strong. I will survive.”

The waitress—not Huong, apparently, and far too young to be Mama—brought them glasses of ice water and took their orders for tea and appetizers. Alia chose goi cuon tom, shrimp and rice noodles wrapped in rice paper with veggies and peanut sauce, while Landry asked for dau hu chien.

“You get points for eating fried tofu,” she told him with her best teasing smile.

“I’ve eaten stranger things.”

“I lived in Hawaii. I’ve eaten SPAM. On purpose. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. In tacos. With gravy. As sushi. Fried, baked, grilled and cold from the can.” She gave him a top that sort of look, then turned back to the menu as the waitress arrived with drinks. For lunch, she decided on tom rang muoi tieu, crispy in-shell shrimp stir-fried with bell peppers, onions, garlic, chili and other seasonings.

The waitress turned to Landry, and so did Alia, curious about his order since she would likely end up tasting at least a bit of it. She always did.

“Now she’s going to make fun of me.” He directed his words to the waitress, lifted his menu and pointed. “I want that.”

Alia stretched to see. “What is it?”

“Bun thit nuong,” the girl said.

“Ooh, pork vermicelli noodle bowl. I love noodles. And pork. And pickled daikon.”

Landry handed the menu to the girl, then asked, “Is Huong here?”

“No, she comes in late on Sunday because of church. But Mama’s in back. I’ll tell her you’re here.”

Alia touched one hand to her tightly braided hair. She hadn’t acknowledged it while getting dressed, but she’d wanted to look good for meeting Landry’s ex-girlfriend. Hence, the clothes a few steps above her usual summer outfit of shorts and tee, and jewelry and brain cells fighting hard against the tug of hair roots.

It wasn’t that she was jealous of... Well, yes, she was. She was jealous of every woman who’d had a relationship with Landry, or who could have one if she wanted. Every time she felt a jolt of pure womanly appreciation for the man, she envied every female, available or not, whose job didn’t stand in the way of a relationship.

Hers didn’t have to. If she were no longer assigned to this case...

“It’s about time you showed your pretty face here.” Mama Tranh’s voice echoed in the small space an instant before a short, lean gray-haired woman grabbed Landry in an enthusiastic hug.

“I was here last Tuesday.”

Mama made a dismissive gesture. “And where were you Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and yesterday?” Her gaze shifted from him to Alia, and her dark eyes lit up. “It’s about time you brought a pretty friend,” she said slyly. She offered her hand and gripped firmly when Alia took it.

“Chào, bà Tranh. Tôi Alia.”

The old lady’s eyes widened, then crinkled as a smile split her face. “Ah, Landry, you found a girl who speaks to my heart. Nó là t?t d?p d? dáp ?ng b?n.”

They spoke a few moments more, Alia’s Vietnamese slower and not as sure as Mama’s. It felt good to be speaking it, though, bringing back sweet memories of her childhood. When Mama returned to the kitchen, Alia slid the paper from her straw and used it to stir sugar into her tea. “My mother’s parents own a restaurant in Chicago. Every summer when Mom and I visited them, I hung out in the kitchen and practiced my Vietnamese with the employees. I don’t get to use it much these days.”

“Mama’s tried to teach me a few words, but I have no talent for languages. She thinks I should at least be able to pronounce the names of the dishes I order, but I figure that’s what the pictures are for.”

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