Wednesday, September 3, 2008

China Meshi

I had a very discerning palate when I was little; I refused to eat the unfamiliar. If what was on the plate wasn't an old friend, I didn't want it. That begs the question how did I get to eat anything at all since at one point in time every single food was new and unfamiliar to me, and for that I have no answer.

Embarrassingly enough, I was a spoiled kid so my mom would make a frozen dinner when we had something too strange (which was pretty broadly defined by me). I got more than my share of sodium and other unhealthy things when I was a youngster.

I loved Chinese food, though. Give me credit for venturing into the world of fried rice, chow mein and chashu! Oh, and egg flower soup, as well.

When my folks decided to have China-meshi, the usual choice was Ho Sai Kai, a tiny neighborhood joint just a couple blocks away on Western Avenue. Sometimes we even walked there. Now this was the kind of place I associate with Chinese restaurants: bare plastered walls, formica tabletops, green linoleum floors and a constant clatter of dishes mixed with a constant chatter of Cantonese back in the kitchen. And big individual bowls of rice rounded into a mound resembling an igloo. Just how do you go about eating rice like that without it all crumbling to the table??

Rosie was the waitress who knew us. I thought she was a family friend, the way she was always so chummy when we arrived. When she wasn't there my dad or mom would ask, "No Rosie today?" "Oh Rosie no here, she day off today." Rosie was a wiry sort from Hong Kong that had a certain swagger about her; she knew how to make you feel like you were her only customers.

"Oh, we all out of eggflower soup, no have today," she'd tease, and after my face fell she would laugh and tell us she just kidding, while she wrote it on her order pad. She knew my habits. "You try some hom-yu today?" Then she'd laugh at how I violently shook my head.

Chashu fried rice, pork chow mein, eggflower soup, hom-yu, almond duck, pakkai, shrimp in lobster sauce - our meals revolved around these staples. Of these I'd only eat the first three and make faces at the rest. I was a starchy little fellow. Don't forget the fork, too.

One time apparently either Rosie or my folks said something that was taken with offense. My recollection is hazy but Japanese-Chinese relationships were strained for a while. I don't remember what it was about or who said what; I'll have to ask my parents if they remember. For a while my Let's go to Ho Sai Kai suggestions (requests, pleas, demands) were met with not this time. Soon enough, though, things were back to normal and there was Rosie, chumming it up with my folks again.

Then one day Rosie told us Ho Sai Kai was closing. They were moving to a new location, a couple blocks south near the corner of Exposition and Western. I remember the first time we visited the new place - wow, it looked so big and modern! Artwork on the walls, even! And there was Rosie, with new menus but the familiar items. No more tiny six-table echo chamber, this new place looked positively elegant from my limited perspective.

Ah, Chinese food in style. No need to venture to San Kow Low in J-Town or to inscrutable Chinatown - we had the Ritz right in our own 'hood! Now how does that adage, you are what you eat, apply here? You know, I was living that cliche, "we was po' but happy."

Ho Sai Kai is still there, though I haven't been back since some point in junior high. I wonder what it's like now. And I wonder if Rosie is still there.

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