A few weeks ago some friends and I were starving, wandering around Chinatown without a plan, a figuratively dangerous place to be. I eagerly suggested a popular Chinese restaurant I had heard about, mostly because it was nearby and also because my stomach was about to eat my face from the inside out. The restaurant hostess stood alone in a lobby behind a shabby fake wood podium holding a walkie-talkie and passively drinking bubble tea and wearing jeans. When we arrived by way of escalator, we crossed the threshold to reveal a massive chandelier, and then around the corner – a loud, harshly light dining room which had no walls, and probably once existed as a warehouse. Our table for three could have comfortably fit four more people. A neighboring group of Chinese business-y men nearby had liters of soda and mountains of broccoli on a pedestal in the center of the table. There was no music, only the staccato’ed cheers of everyone around us.
And the food was good, actually — along with standard pork dumplings and highlighter yellow lemon chicken, we ordered bacon-wrapped seafood balls as a half-joke, and they turned out to be one of the best little strange bites their dim sum menu had to offer: salty and tender and containing the perfect amount of distinguishable tiny shrimp. But the restaurant was brighter than my bathroom, large platters of food were wheeled out on scuffed gray carts by sweaty servers, and patrons who arrived in groups smaller than two dozen were scattered toward the outskirts of the floor. It felt like a try-hard nightclub with the lights on, and we were the only ones sober.
I’m hardly lucky when it comes to eating out. That is to say, if the dining experience is a success, it’s because I’ve done the research, necessary planning, and often the pre-screening to ensure complete satisfaction will be the only outcome, both for my dining companions and for me. In a city of constant culinary experimentation (employed both for good and evil) and often expensive, frequently overhyped, and occasionally gimmicky food, it can be hard not to develop trust issues. Involving a successful meal, luck is rarely a factor. Chinese Warehouse Castle (not its real name) is clearly an example of the importance my vetting methods serve. It wasn’t a horrible time. But it wasn’t a great time. And it’s not exactly a mystery why.
When you go out to eat, you want to be loved. You want to be loved in all aspects of your life – by your parents to a normal and healthy degree, in your relationship if it’s reciprocated, at the gym when you’re noticeably sucking during Bikram. But specifically in a restaurant, you’re paying for a service basically invented by moms, and in a cavernous high-ceilinged Chinese fiesta of a dining establishment, you’re not going to get that kind of love. At restaurants that love you, the food will always taste good even if it isn’t. But when it’s good, it’s because food is a chef’s default repository for love. And after understanding this, you’re suddenly aware of a flavor possessing a value that is comparable to salt.
Imagine for me, that little Puerto Rican restaurant a few blocks from work, the one with fluorescent lighting and brown church hall chairs with ripped fabric and scuffed ankles. The entry is recessed into the front wall of windows, and the door is always inexplicably resistant, in a way as if to say: you’re not getting in unless you pull hard enough, unless you care enough to try. An unplaceable voice greets you in Spanish from somewhere behind the counter, which is a bounty of potato salads and octopus salads, all sitting in trays sitting in ice. The cash register is manual and has been living in New York, in this restaurant, in its plastic enclosing of a house longer than I’ve been alive (since 1976, if we want to be precise). The plastic house is covered in stickers and handwritten yellowed notes, patches of tape that have been ripped away and reapplied. You grab your own menus from a table in the back corner, where someone was peeling garlic but they’re no longer there even though the garlic still is, because they got up to answer a phone or stir something.
You sit wherever you want, at a table that may or may not be clean, because you have four options and you’re lucky if one is open, so you take it. Preserved in between the rainbow striped table cloths and the protective glass surface are flyers for local events, annual festivals, neighborhood parties. Water is served in small flimsy plastic cups, from a large orange cooler, the kind you find at soccer games. You call the lip-lined woman back when you’re ready to order, because the restaurant is small enough that she can see you from the kitchen.
They’re famous for their chicken, but only because it’s the most accessible item on the menu (not by a lot) and since white people create Yelp and celebrity chefs and restaurant fame, chicken is what they talk about. That being said, the chicken is amazing. By whatever magic, its skin is a bright red-orange, and it fulfills the only two (although sometimes seemingly impossible) requirements necessary to make chicken delicious: it’s extremely juicy and intensely flavorful. White rice is molded with a Styrofoam bowl into a low mound on a sturdy white plate. Black beans are served in a little mug, which is served on a saucer. Chicharrones de pollo – little fried bits of chicken, are served on a leaf of lettuce that doesn’t do anything or mean anything. In general, you’re inclined to strip away and discard those things that stand in the way of the food or take up more space on the table. You pull the limp lettuce out from under the chicharrones like a tablecloth trick, pour the beans over the rice, and your server comes to take the unnecessary away without a word.
On the physical menu itself, water-wrinkled pages are stuffed into smudged plastic protectors, and the names of items are typed out in Papyrus. Papyrus was the font used on the first menu of your family’s first restaurant – an endeavor to which you happily gave many, many hours of your teenage years, which shaped you into the girl you are, now eating at this family’s restaurant hundreds of miles away from your own.
You’re quietly reminded what love can build.
As you leave, you see a bespectacled, dark-skinned woman with white hair throwing spices into a pot as old and big as she is old and small. She is the namesake of this restaurant. She doesn’t look up, she doesn’t say a word to you, because you’ve already had a full conversation through your experience of eating, and you already know that she loves you. For this woman who is maybe 139 years old, making the food is even more important than serving it to you. That is her life, this restaurant is her living room, and you are a guest who feels lucky to have been invited, even though you came on your own.