This is an article written by my Uncle Francis who spends his retirement sending amusing e-mails to family members that eventually get to me, and leaving hilarious messages on my cousin’s answering machine. I’d thought I’d share his latest dispatch with you…
My love affair with the China town continues…
Every Sunday after 7:30 AM mass, I have been driving down to the downtown Oakland to have breakfast in Chinatown over past ten years. Once there, I used to devour a sumptuous meal such as a noodle set with big pineapple bread, freshly brewed coffee, and a few cups of jasmine tea at the ABC Cafe for bargain price ($3.50). I could finish the meal in no time and often still felt hungry. But that was so until last year. After getting to the pinnacle of my golden age 70, it isn’t so any longer. Beyond one dim sum plate & tea, my stomach starts grumbling, ‘stupid old man, no more, OK?’. Although it makes the stomach filling easier for most men of my age, this old man, who has perpetually self-generating real or imaginary worries, is different. If the old man cannot eat at the ABC Café, what should he do for next Sunday breakfast?
In past 5 years, a number of first-rate dim sum restaurants popped up in the Chinatown like wild mushrooms. The foods there are fantastic, and waiters and waitresses appear sincere & some even cordial. Since these restaurants are almost always packed with long waiting crowd, the old man’s first worry is about getting refused right at the front door for lack of a table to sit one guy. Even after getting seated by a chance, his second worry follows up, “Can I gulp down only one dim sum plate (plus courtesy green tea) and make a graceful exit without hearing dirty Chinese curses on cheapskate behind my back?” Lately the ripe (‘hopelessly’ is a better description) old age toughened my thick face even thicker. I gave up the damn pride and challenged to myself – ‘old man, let’s JUST DO IT! You have nothing to lose.’
[The search for sticky rice after the jump]
I cautiously enter a restaurant and am somewhat startled to realize that they seem care less of the old man, since the waiters and waitresses are totally busy serving other customers. So the first of my worries evaporates like vapor. It is an unexpected but welcome start. It must owe, to a large extent, to an immense popularity of dim sums, but it also owes, at least in part, to its own byproduct – a tremendous number of dim sum restaurants. As they all serve almost identical dishes, these restaurants are waging fierce price-cutting warfare among themselves to survive and ultimately to come out as a winner. So the prices of large, medium, and small dim sum plates have tumbled all the way down to a single price of mere $1.80.
Now getting back to my ever-worrying story … soon after successfully making the entrance, I notice the dining room to be ultra noisy and somewhat stocky with sparse interior decoration & (probably eternally) hanging ads proclaiming ‘Today’s specials’ dishes here and there. I meekly stick up my right index finger to draw attention of a hostess and also to indicate single seat. She almost always let me bypass the waiting line to squeeze me into an empty seat with two or three total strangers – some hopelessly old and others wishfully young – all talking rapidly in Cantonese or Mandarin, which is total Greek to me. Eating with unfamiliar companions was initially uncomfortable, but the feeling soon evaporates like vapor after realizing that they completely (or at least pretend to) ignore the old man’s uninvited entry at their table. Their focus is on getting attention of waitresses (who are pushing the dim-sum carts around the room) so that they can stock up as many plates as possible – starchy plates & oily indigestible looking meat stuffs. It is this homely atmosphere that makes this old man feel relaxed like at his home. I start to hunt for a reasonably large-size dim sum plate from the store’s mostly incomprehensible menu written in 100% Chinese and also peeking into the dim sum cartwheels going around the room.
My second worry is creeping in my mind, “Do I have enough gut to sit here ordering single plate, finishing it, and sipping complementary oolong tea for 30 minutes, fully aware of the long waiting line and my table companions who are ordering 3 or some 5 plates?” I decide to do it anyway to get my lifelong favorite – chicken-stuffed sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. It has an exotic flavor infused from the lotus leaves wrapping the rice when cooked together. The cost for two per plate is $1.80.
My order to get the plate in English meets with totally blank stares from the cart-wheeling severs. It is a complete failure of my communication skill.
After failing a couple of more times, I decided two months ago to test my luck at Joy Luck Restaurant, secretly wishing its name ‘Luck’ to bring me luck. I was seated between an old man at my right and a youth at my left, the old man had just finished his sticky rice in lotus leaves. I told to myself “My persistence finally paid off.” I pulled out my pocket notepad and pen from the shirt pocket and, pointing his dish, asked the old man to write the name of the dish in Chinese – that didn’t work out. The young guy, who was watching my comical hand-waving acrobatics with amusement, asked the old men in Chinese to jot down the plate’s name on the notepad. The old man scribbled 糯米鸡 in no second – like a piece of cake. Me? Completely awe-struck, “How could this older guy (than me) memorize & instantly write such complex characters (possibly thousands other characters)? He isn’t hopeless but must be a genius – much superior to a PhD like a truly hopeless me. Afterward, the young guy wrote its pronunciation in English, ‘lo mi gae’ in the notepad. A few days later, my second Chinese source told me that ‘lo mi gae’ is Cantonese pronunciation of 糯米鸡, and its Mandarin equivalent being ‘lo mi ji’. Since then, whenever I go to the Joy Luck or other dim sum places, I shout, with hidden pride, ‘lo mi gae’ to a waiter. If it doesn’t connect, I repeat my next repertoire, ‘lo mi ji’. If it still is unsuccessful, I flip the page from my notepad and, like a mute, meekly point the word 糯米鸡. In any case, most dim sum places are ultra hectic for most of time, so much so that sometimes I have to get out by paying $2.03 (one plate + tax) without tipping, and, of course, with satisfied stomach (and smile).
A moral to this lengthy story? Well… a frugal gourmet eater like this old man has gotten a rare chance to appreciate the old capitalist principle of free competition. It has given me a dream breakfast at a bargain rate served in luxury by a waitress on a covered table with metal forks, knives, and chopsticks.
Yeah, I know…
I totally gotta get Uncle Francis hooked into Yelp 😀