You are Who You Eat With

The restaurant experience can be a tricky thing to optimize. Sometimes you are just after a fun time with good company, and so the nature of the space (or the booze) is more impotrant than the food. More often though, especially for me, the goal is to both have a good time and to get the best food possible. This can be especially hard for those of us afflicted with a particular psychological malady which I will call “Trillin’s syndrome”, after the New Yorker writer who pointed it out to me. You know you suffer from this syndrome if, after ordering in a restaurant, you are overcome with an uncontrollable feeling of dread and terror caused by the thought that the other patrons have somehow obtained food that is much much better than what you have just ordered. The real world often works to exacerbate this problem by placing artificial barriers in your way. The canonical example of this is the menu you can’t read. Chinese restaurants have mastered this technique, generally putting an entire wall of food that I cannot order without a translator right next to my table, while making me stare at the dishes for the rubes and losers who can only speak English.

Many of my most crushing restaurant traumas came at the hands of Chinese restaurants, most often when I brought the wrong company along. I am as much in favor of having a good time with good friends as the next guy, but when you are after food and you have a limited number of chances to get it, you have to be very careful about who you eat with.

For example, once, during an unfortunate stint working in Pasadena, CA, I brought a fellow contractor who seemed to be a stand up fellow in most other ways to a fantastic Cantonese seafood joint in Monterey Park. I hooked up with this man primarily because he had a car and I did not. I probably should have been more selective.

For those unfamiliar with the LA area, Monterey Park is one oasis in the otherwise sterile concrete strip mall desert that is Southern California (for reference, two other such places are Zankou Chicken and Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles). Here, in the middle of an otherwise completely forgettable and soulless expanse of urban wilderness sits a sprawling suburban Chinatown. So we drove there, past the huge Chinese mall, the Costco-sized Ranch 99 Chinese Market, and so on and pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant.

The place had two huge rooms, with a wall-sized bank of fish tanks down the middle. In these tanks were various swimming creatures in all shapes and sizes. I craved to order something, anything, from the tanks, but the sight of the food still in its live form appeared to make my lunch partner a bit queasy. The situation was not improved when one of the staff walked over to one tank with a large bucket and pulled out what must be a 5 or 10lb gray/green mass with a clam shell on one end and brought it to a table near ours. Our eyes followed the bucket over to its destination. I’m thought, “I wonder where geoduck is on the menu”. The look on my partner’s face said “what the hell is that, and how do I get out of here”?

There were, of course, two menus, one of which iwass written completely in Chinese. The menu I could read featured General Tso’s Chicken, Shrimp with Lobster sauce, and so on. So we ordered two lunch specials, and I sighed deeply as the food arrived at the same time as the table next to ours received a huge platter of shrimp which had been steamed live, shell and head on, like tiny little lobsters. I turned to my partner and said, “We should have ordered that.” He looked a bit taken aback, and replied, “But the heads are still on the shrimp.”

Don’t let this happen to you.

Luckily, this story had a happy ending because I was able to return to the place the next week with my friend and his new Cantonese girlfriend. All lovers of Chinese food should know someone with a Cantonese girlfriend. The shrimp were awesome.