Thursday, August 12, 2004


I still mourn the loss of the Chau Chow, the grungy Chinatown restaurant that bestowed the blessing of spicy dried fried salted squid and stayed open until near-dawn with modesty, diverse clientele and winking offerings of “cold tea.” (It was beer.) This is not just maudlin nostalgia, but recognition that the remaining restaurants in the Chau Chow family are poor replacements in fancy clothes.

The Grand Chau Chow was across the street from the plain ol’ Chau Chow, gussied up with mirrors, potted plants and flashy paneling, but it was always a fallback. Going there was distasteful, somehow, and made waiting a half-hour for a table at the scummy place an acceptable alternative. Now the Chau Chow is gone, making the Grand Chau Chow still a second choice to Chau Chow City -- and strangely far less grand, since Chau Chow City is three stories of thick and relentless faux Asian glitz created by actual Asians, the intimidating Luu family.

But, forced to eat at the Grand Chau Chow, one is relieved to find ... no, that sentence came out wrong. Let’s try it again.

Forced to eat at the Grand Chau Chow, one is appalled to find that the experience is worse than feared, with outright hostile waiters, dismissive management, suspicious-looking food and crowding reminiscent of Chico and Harpo’s guerilla maitre’ding in “A Night in Casablanca.” The vegetables in oyster sauce ordered by my girlfriend, Martina, could best be described as “a lot of one vegetable with a bit of oyster sauce and something that looks suspiciously like gristle.” (The waiters and management have a different take on it. To them the dish is more like “this is the vegetable you wanted even though we don’t name it and you don’t know what it is, with exactly the right amount of oyster sauce because any more would overwhelm your palate, and a stray bit of, um, that’s, uh, ginger.” But you can order by number if you can’t remember all that.)

Waiters took the dish back very reluctantly, rejecting the notion it was not fairly described on the menu and not exactly what Martina wanted. They also claimed they would take a loss on the dish, although the vegetable must have cost them all of 80 cents, with another couple of cents for the squiggle of sauce. They all but claimed their children would starve, although the Luus own not just several restaurants, including the thriving Chinatown Chau Chows, but a food importing business and supermarket chain.

Perhaps sensing that their tip had plunged to zero, we got no more tea or water for the rest of the meal. We actually left a dollar, reflecting that they’d taken the dish back and removed it from the bill. Our new waiter rejected my explanation of the poor tip with brusque, wounded energy. Let’s move on, he seemed to say.

The manager shared that healthy let’s-move-on attitude, except that his version was the steroidal bodybuilder version of mental health, with the red skin and bulging veins and chest that swallows up one’s neck and head. “We don’t care,” he said when I tried to speak to him about the low tip, knowing waiters more or less live on them. “The waiters and the restaurant are separate.”

(This makes one wonder why the waiter would balk at all at taking the dish back. If the two are separate, waiters have every incentive to screw the restaurant to increase the size of their tips.)

It’s hardly the kind of attitude, or experience, that makes diners eager to return. But the Luus, and Grand Chau Chow itself, have no reason to worry or change. The place is thronged, packed with diners ready to be abused, and a boycott would be silly, as the restaurant’s surliness and arrogance is built on the adoration of the masses.

Let the masses have it. I suspect we won’t be rushing back.

No comments: