There is a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco a few blocks from my parents’ house. It’s cheap, and you get massive plates of decent food. The Singapore-style rice noodles are especially good. As for ambiance, did I mention that the portions are dynastic in their size? It may be just the place when a Great Wall of Hunger separates you from your happiness. Then again it may not.
The Garden is indistinguishable from dozens of other Chinese restaurants in Beijing-By-The-Bay: harsh fluorescent lights, black metal chairs that look like they were stolen from a VFW Hall in Fresno, a pair of grubby tanks in which lobsters and fish await the executioner’s pot. A place where rock cod and appetites come to die. On the walls are menu items written in Mandarin, and which the more conspiratorial minded may suspect double as pro-Chinese slogans: “Stinky Tofu Smelling Like Bus Full of White Devils”; Twice-Cooked Pork Cooked Once More In The Salty Tears of White Devils’; “Cabbage Braised In The Happiness of Our Ancestors Once the White Devils Have Been Exterminated Like The Mosquitoes They Are”; “Monkey Picked Green Tea and Garlic Abalone That No Hairy Apes Posing As White Devils Can Order.”
I have had two meals inside Happy Garden. In some circles, this is like saying you’ve been on death row twice. Or that you when you win the lottery you’re going to invite everyone in Willits over for a BBQ and to work on your Corvette. My first excur-sion to the restaurant was as frustrating and confusing as watching Sarah Palin trying on wolf-fur bikinis while she read a large-type edition of AN IDIOT’S GUIDES TO IDIOT GUIDES. We had to get our own forks and ask for water multiple times. The glasses looked as if a stray Doberman cleaned them. Unsurprisingly, the food came out in a weird pattern: bok choy, pot stickers, soup, rice, nineteen minutes pass, we wonder if they’ve forgotten, we’d like to cancel the order but the waiters have been kidnapped, the waitress has been carried off by a dragon, the Rapture occurred and only the sinners remain and, oh, here it is: chicken chow mein. We should have known better when we walked to our table. We had motioned the waiter over and pointed at a broken chair. “Yes?” he said. “The chair only has three legs.” “Yes?” “It will break if someone sits in it.” “Really? Ha ha ha.” He replaced the chair. “Ha ha ha.” I thought, “Is this guy nuts?” The next several times he hurried by our table, the waiter glanced at me and said, “Broken chair! Ha ha ha…” After the fifth time, his “joke” began to feel threatening. My sister and I vowed never to go back.
But promises, like treaties with Native Americans, are meant to be broken. Thus, against my better judgment, last week I decide to meet my parents at Happy Garden, aka the Garden of Eatin’, aka the G Spot (mythic, mysterious, subterranean and perverse).
It is busy. Once we are seated, the waiter, a blocky young man running the entire room alone, immediately bolts off to other tables. No menus, no tea, no pretense of welcoming smile. The waiter, to be fair, is trying his best to ignore a chorus of complaints, warnings and murderous rage coming from every table. Where’s the soup? What’s taking so long? Did you tell the chef no MSG? “Remember,” says one Mr. Angry Ponytail Man, “I want my order in two courses; first, pot stickers, second fried rice.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the waiter brushes him off.
I begin to fear the worst, like seeing the girl you had a crush on in seventh grade holding hands with your best friend.
Soon the waiter reappears with pot stickers in one hand and fried rice in the other. Mr. Angry Ponytail puts down the back page of the SF Weekly (i.e., Stop Creditors! Lonely Russian Beauties Waiting For You, Medicinal Marijuana Cards to Anyone Dead or Living!) and erupts: “I told you I wanted pot stickers first!” Smiling, the waiter puts down the pot stickers, then the fried rice. “See, pot stickers first!” Mr. Angry Ponytail gets angrier, and demands the fried rice be banished from his sight. As the waiter carries the offending plate back into the kitchen, he is trailed by a wheezing Latina who says, “It’s been an hour. For take out. Three other tables who came after me have all gotten their food!” The waiter ignores her. She positions herself just inside the kitchen and lets fly a torrent of abuse. She says she’s late, everyone’s waiting for her, can she please get her food? Then we hear a gargled wail: the first five courses she ordered are on plates, ready to be served, when she ordered to go! She offers to box the food herself. The waiter and cook, as far as I can see, are ignoring her. Meanwhile, similarly underserved diners fetch their own utensils, napkins, cups for tea. After ten minutes, a waitress shows up from nowhere and sullenly takes the our own order. She neither speaks nor looks up from her pad. For all her enthusiasm, you’d think we were outside the gates of the Forbidden City, demanding that a policeman find a chopstick we lost during Mao’s Long March.
A new diner comes in. With his long stringy beard and tilted shuffle, he looks like one of those anonymous bandits always lurking by the roads in cheesy martial arts films. Extra Bandit Extra #2 grins like a fool and wears a blue satin disco jacket, like he’s on his way to the Rinky Dink in Ukiah for a Camelot-comes-to-South State Street event called Saturday Knights Fever. He sits and is almost immediately served food. Meat and rice. Rumors of a shrimp, Then he takes out a phone-like contraption with buttons the size of piano keys. Soon a computerized glockenspiel version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” drifts through the air. It sounds like if a kindergarten marching band had been shoved up HAL 9000’s dataport. I close my eyes and wish I was in Guantanamo.
Meanwhile, the waiter is beginning to feel the pain. The woman who ordered her take out over an hour ago is still parked the kitchen, mostly being ignored, and demanding free rice and wondering how long does claypot sea bass takes. Instead of checking on any of the many annoyed customers, the waiter marches to the cash register and picks up the phone. He chants into the receiver, “Homo, homo, homo, homo…” I am not joking. Maybe it means something else in Chinese. He puts the phone down and disappears into the kitchen, where he proceeds to get in a shouting match with the chef. More orders are taken, botched, ignored. No one ever asks us for water. I look at the menu items on the wall next to me. Though I can’t read Chinese, I know it says: “Arrogant American Devil, You Are Paying For Your Sewer Thoughts and Monkey Ball Ways!”
Our dishes begin to trickle out. The waiter crankcalls someone again, “Homo homo homo homo…” A gentle elderly couple asks for napkins, as they are having salt and pepper crabs. The waitress nods and disappears into the kitchen. The polite couple asks the waiter for napkins. He nods and disappears into the kitchen. A kid who looks just like the waiter, only in acid washed jeans, ambles to the soda case and gazes at the sprites and colas. Curiosity satisfied, he is walking back to his table when the elderly couple asks him for more napkins. “Ha ha ha!” he erupts. “I don’t work here. Ha ha ha!”
Just when the restaurant seems to be on the verge of a mutiny, a new waitress comes. Then another cook. The waiter continues crouch over the cash register and make crank calls. Seventy minutes later, about twice as long as the Bataan Death March, we finally pay and escape. My father, whose loyalty to problematic situations and questionable people is legendary, says he’ll never go back. I agree. We do not, however, rule out ordering to go.