If I had to choose one ethnic food to eat my entire life, it would be Chinese food. Sure, I’d miss the occasional pepperoni pizza, but I couldn’t eat pizza every day. I could eat egg rolls every day. And kung pao chicken.
We don’t have a “nice” Chinese restaurant in my area. We have tons of the fast food version and a couple of those buffets that has every Chinese food known in America plus pizza, French fries and a soft serve ice cream machine. But nowhere that you can go, sit down and have someone serve you delicious, freshly made food.
But I still had my favorite Chinese place, Men at Wok.
It was my favorite because:
1) The name is clever.
I know it’s probably not original. Most likely there are thousands of “Men at Wok” Chinese restaurants across the nation, but it’s still cute. And I love the reference. Any restaurant that references eighties music has my vote.
2) The food was good.
Not much else to say about that.
3) The service was amazing.
I probably went to Men at Wok every other week or so. Usually on Friday nights, when the place was packed. But every single time I went, they recognized my voice on the phone when I called and recognized me when I came to pick up my order.
The restaurant was owned and operated by a married couple that I called Mr. & Mrs. Wok. Never to their faces, of course. I’m kind of embarrassed that I called them that and never asked their real names. I thought about it once in a while, but it seemed awkward. Why should they tell me their names? It would have stopped me from calling them Mr. & Mrs. Wok, but they didn’t know I did.
Mr. & Mrs. Wok were absolutely incredible to watch on a busy night. Mr. Wok would fly around the kitchen making food, while Mrs. Wok was answering phones, running the register, delivering orders to tables and bagging take-out orders.
But she still always remembered me. When I called in she’d say “For Heather, right?” And I’m not vain enough to think that I was the only person she remembered. She recognized everyone’s voices.
Mr. & Mrs. Wok had a little girl who used to be in the restaurant sometimes. She would hide under the counter where you ordered and paid.
How cool was it that she had a hidey hole under the counter? When I was a kid, I would have loved a place all my own where I could hear all the hustle and bustle occurring, the people coming and going but they couldn’t see me. There’s something cozy about being invisible.
When she got older, their daughter would put calls on hold for her parents when it got really busy.
And she read. A lot. I suppose there’s not much else for a kid to do in a restaurant, but it was refreshing to see her reading instead of playing a hand held video game. She seemed to be reading way above her age group, too.
One evening I went in to pick up an order and there was a younger couple working with Mr. & Mrs. Wok. The guy was in the kitchen and the woman was helping on the counter.
My first reaction was that it was nice that they had some help. Every time I went to the restaurant, Mr. & Mrs. Wok were there. They’d close for a week in the summer and on Sundays, but I think that’s the only time off they got. They were there six days a week at least eleven hours a day.
But then I went back and Mr. & Mrs. Wok weren’t there at all. The younger couple was doing everything. I thought maybe the Woks had taken a vacation.
Slowly things started to change around Men at Wok. The walls were painted. And kitschy little Chinese tchotchkes started to appear on the counter. Things like a cat clock with one paw in the air, a water fountain with Asian writing on it and those red tassels that seem to figure so prominently in American Chinese restaurant decorating.
Before you couldn’t tell what type of restaurant you were in except for menus and the basket of soy sauce packets. Now you knew the moment you walked in.
The kicker was when the sign appeared. “Under New Management.” All I could think was, “But I liked the old management.”
I kept going to Men at Wok for while. The food was different, but still pretty good. And old habits die hard.
Then twice in a row they left something out of my order. It wasn’t a big deal, an egg roll here, an order of rice there, but that never happened with Mr. & Mrs. Wok. It was clear that the customer service had declined, and I’m kind of a snob about customer service. I’ve been dealing with customers ever since my very first job, so I expect good service.
Plus, it wasn’t the same without Mrs. Wok asking, “For Heather, right?”
So I’ve found a new Chinese restaurant, but its name doesn’t reference the eighties at all.
The other day I was walking by a hotel and Mr. Wok was standing outside in a valet uniform.
I was surprised. I think I had been hoping that he and Mrs. Wok had retired to some tropical island and were lying on the sand with fruity drinks, far from ringing telephones and demanding customers.
Being a valet is probably less stressful than owning a Chinese restaurant. I’m sure he works fewer hours and the benefits are better, but it’s no tropical island.
I thought about walking up to Mr. Wok and telling him that I missed him and his wife. That the restaurant wasn’t the same without them.
I didn’t. But as I passed I smiled and gave him a little nod, silently wishing Mr. & Mrs. Wok good luck.