When I was a boy there was only one way to order Chinese food. My mom and dad took us to the Toy Sun Restaurant in Providence, R.I., a city of perhaps eight Chinese residents at the time, and we ordered egg rolls, egg foo yung and chow mein. Then I went to college and became sophisticated and discovered the new, non-sticky-red way to order Chinese food. My friends and I in Cambridge went to Joyce Chen's, perhaps, and ordered potstickers, a pork dish, a beef dish and a chicken dish, careful not to repeat meats. There were no Chinese patrons sitting near us to make us feel like idiots.
Now it's hard to order Chinese food and, as much as I like the food, I dread the choices. There are too many, and I always feel like I made the wrong ones. I almost always show up with the wrong number of people, too.
Whenever I go to one of the really good Chinese restaurants south of San Francisco where the rich Chinese have moved, there are few tables for two. The Chinese show up in parties of eight or ten and order all kinds of wonderful looking things, always including a giant fish, while we demographically disabled Anglos meekly ask for a table for two, which wouldn't hold one of those fish even if we wanted to look at it, and it at us.
So what do we do? We try to go to places that serve dim sum all day, so we can see the food as it goes by. The problem is, we always show up hungry and order the first five things that survive the passage of the room to our table. Then, when we're full, the chef turns off the clogged deep fryer and starts sending out the wonderful translucent stuff. Too late, always too late.
Today I have to go to the Veterans hospital out at the end of Clement Street in San Francisco, which means I drive past more Chinese restaurants than Chowhound can shake a memory stick at. For lunch, let's see. The choices are harder than trying to find a parking space near the hospital and the results can be as dreary as the waiting room at the blood lab.
The solution is lunch at nine in the morning. The parking is not impossible and the only places serving food are some formica bakeries that serve maybe ten hot items, all out in the open. I always pass on the noodles congealing on the steam table and go for mercifully wrapped items like sticky rice or stuff that's meant to congeal, like turnip cake. Better than it sounds, white kids.
Or maybe I'll skip the blood work (don't worry, nothing serious), and lunch work (always serious). I can always go to the joint in the strip mall near my house here in the burbs. So what if it has a pun name and it's a combination Chinese-Japanese restaurant. That means I don't even have to consider the raw half of the menu. The chow mein is terrific.