I found the Quick Pack Food Mart in the middle of a long week. Clouds over the Central District, sunshine stabbing through them, and water on the ground from last night’s rain. That Northwest winter was creeping through the heat, blowing in on an icy breeze that roared through the trees like the growling in my stomach. A buddy from work heard it, said, “you hungry?”
I asked him if he knew a place and it came to him. Fast and heavy like a memory of a dream, mostly feelings, couple of pictures.
Weeks before, he had left a Baptist church. There had been a powerful sermon, and it was hot outside, and the crowd was swaying in it, preacher really doing it up. He’d never been to this particular church before and as he wandered through the parking lot, still electric with the surrealness of it all, he’d seen a chunk of the congregation wandering to a purple building across the street.
“Where you guys going?” he’d asked. And someone said, “chicken.”
He told a story with glassy eyes about some of the best chicken he’d ever had, and by the end of it, I knew that’s where we were going.
On the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and South Jackson Street, just down from a Baptist church, there sits a squat purple building with nothing to give it away but an old plastic sign, the faint smell of magic and the leaky, leaky tap of every person who’s ever eaten there and needs to tell someone about it. I tried to picture all the times I’d driven past it and never seen it. Hundreds probably. Fitness center, fire station, purple building. Filed under “N” for non sequitur. There, in that spot, for 30 years.
The lights were off inside, single shaft of golden sunshine booming through the open door and we shuffled through it, past all the shelves lined with the things that make this place a “food mart” to the hot cases on the countertop that make it a neighborhood treasure. Gargantuan slabs of chicken in aluminum tubs, steaming that freshly fried steam up into the heat lamps. We were punch drunk with the smell of it.
“What can I get you?”
The woman behind the counter spoke to us with the careful, reserved tone of a teacher or a librarian. The voice of someone who was accustomed to instilling wonder. She was Ethiopian and her smile was brilliant and her eyes were kind.
My companion was smushed up against the glass partition, the heat lamps on fire in his eyes. He pointed at things, and she tonged them into a box. It was my turn then and everything was happening so fast. I was just listening to the growling of my stomach. I was just looking for something elusive and then it was there in front of me and there were choices to be made and I wasn’t ready to make them. Thick, meaty drumsticks, and massive, mutant wings. Jojo potatoes that were just full-size russets divided into sixths. Daggers of perfectly crisped meat that would turn out to be OG chicken strips. Pockets of fried dough filled with carefully spiced rice and meat called sambusas. I pointed at things. She tonged them.
And then just like that, we were outside. We were loose of it, standing in the daylight.
We carried our food to the hood of my friend’s car. Opened the lids to the boxes. The smell wafted up off of it in a fist. The skin was crispy, ridged with batter and fry oil, speckled faintly with seasonings. One at a time, we pulled each piece from the box with shine in our eyes. Savory juice and the flash of chili heat. Skin, so thinly battered, positively zapped with crisp. Just the thinnest touch from hot, clean oil. This was fried chicken, the way it used to be. The regal beast that it was before we started cutting corners and wore it down into the squishfaced pug that it is now. Before McNuggets and Colonel Sanders. Before buckets and ranch dressing. Some of the best chicken I’ve ever had. The sambusas were wild and aromatic. The jojos were fantastic.
We ate that meal off the hood of a car under a September sky to the whir and hum of a city sliding into winter, and when there was nothing left but bones, it wasn’t hard to figure out why so many people had remembered the food, but had no idea how to get to it, or where it was. A flash of powerful smells in the darkness. Hasty choices and warm smiles, then a life-changing meal and you were gone. The experience was disorienting. Intoxicating. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
I almost didn’t write about this place. I didn’t want to ruin the mystery of it. I didn’t want to take away the searching that I was afraid had made it special. But every time I go back to it, I find people smushed up against that glass with wonder in their eyes. People who live down the street. People who came from far away. They all come back just to wander through that door into the semi-darkness like pilgrims to a foreign temple. To a place that’s been sitting in that spot for 30 years. It made me realize that the magic of the Quick Pack Food Mart isn’t something that can be ruined so easily. It’s guarded by the cautious community that surrounds it. It’s preserved by the kind woman behind the counter. It’s embodied by the magical food that they share.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.