August 20, 2009

Slumming: An Epiphany

On the surface it couldn’t look more promising: a restaurant counter at the back of a Chinese grocery. I eat at a little card table with a view of the store shelves: cardboard boxes of round fried gluten, dried noodle, board bean thread; shelf displays of soup mixes with a week’s worth of sodium per serving; ginger and maltose candy; white bread buns filled with guava paste; bags of taro-flavored shrimp chips dyed bright purple. Surely the much-maligned western diet has it over this.

The daily specials are written in Chinese and English on a whiteboard, in smudged black marker. Duck tongues, pork innards… Ever the moderate, I order squid with ground pork.

I take my number tag, 44, to my table, and every time the manager emerges with a tray and shouts a number it sounds, in his accent, like “Forty-four!” An urn behind the counter offers free tea; I do not partake. A fiftyish Mexican man –- immigrant? parolee? -- buses the tables.

When my food arrives, the manager doesn’t shout “Forty-four!” He signals to me with a quiet smile, making allowances for my race. Hm, the pork is sliced, not ground, but this isn’t the kind of place where you send a dish back. The squid? It’s glossy, translucent pink and crunchy-hard. The chef has avoided the danger of overcooking. It probably skidded around in the wok for all of thirty seconds before he flipped it onto the plate. I try a few pieces, then push the rest to the side –- very well, let them think I’m a squeamish Yank! It’s the first time in my life I haven’t liked squid. But the tentacles are long and thick; maybe it’s really octopus.

I finish the pork, sliced garlic, and snow peas, and the tiny bowl of rice. Then I close my eyes and imagine how this dish would have tasted if not for the romantic appeal of the downscale ambience. A watery tan sauce; plain, insipid pork strips. I’d rather have had the standardized, sugar-zapped kung pao chicken of some middle-class palace with gold lions at the door, or the clichéd shrimp and lobster sauce of my childhood’s “Chinese-American” restaurants.

Back outside in the strip mall, I look in at a Cajun place of similar class: long rows of white clothless tables with unmatched chairs, some of them lawn chairs. In the window there’s a favorable review from a guidebook, and inside there’s one person eating, or perhaps just keeping the staff company.

On the evidence of the Chinese place, I’m not going to go here either. I’m going to get home and pour a large helping of fresh blueberries over a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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