1430 E. Plaza Boulevard, National City
'Sweet spaghetti? Carla, cara, say you're kidding me." "Now, darling," she purrs into the phone. "You know while I'm in recovery you have to cater to my every whim, n'est-ce pas?"
Oh, Gawd. Now she's speaking in tongues.
"Carla, darling, where the hell am I gonna find...?"
"Edward! You're not listening! This is for me. Please get your buns over to Bay Plaza Shopping Center. Walk into Asian Noodles, and just say Ma Mon Luk. Okay? Tell them your wife last had Mr. Ma's mami in the Philippines."
I put the phone down. Man. Okay, so she globe-trotted with her Navy daddy. But sweet spaghetti? Ma Mon Luk? Mami?
Half an hour later, in East Plaza, just past the IHOP, this silvery sign says "Asian Noodles."
"Are you Mr. Ma Mon Luk?" I ask the middle-aged chef.
"Our cook doesn't speak English," a perky little lady informs me. "Please take a menu and find a table."
Her nametag says "Liza."
"But," I say, "Ma Mon Luk!"
"Yes, that's our founder," Liza says, "back in 1920." She gives me a dazzling grin.
I flip through the menu. The back page is titled "The Ma Mon Luk tradition." Aha! This guy was real, and here's his bio. There's even a pic taken with his family -- and the president of the Philippines -- probably around 1950.
It seems Mr. Ma was a lowly, underpaid teacher in Canton (Guangzhou) province of China. He fell in love with the prosperous merchant's daughter Ng Shih but couldn't marry her till he'd saved enough money to be worthy of her station. In 1920, Ma Mon Luk traveled to the Philippines "to introduce a new food concept," as the menu says, a "hearty bowl" of egg noodles in a briny broth with chicken. Until then, only the stringier rice noodles had been used in the P.I. As Mr. Ma's soup grew famous in Manila, it came to be called MaMi, or the noodles ("Mi") of Mr. Ma. Mr. Ma also made stuffed steam buns (siopao) to go with the soup.
Over the next four decades, looks as if Mr. Ma became the Ray Kroc of the P.I. Now three of his grandsons are running Asian Noodles restaurants here in Southern California.
So I sit at one of the dozen Formica-top tables, on a silver-and-aqua chair under a little conch-shell wall light. It's a bright room, with concealed fluorescent lighting, a long counter made of glass bricks. There are a bunch of Americans at one end and Filipinos at the other, all slurping into steaming-hot noodle soups.
Guess I've gotta have one. It'd tip ye olde hat to the founder, and also show me what the fuss has been about these 86 years. The menu has everything from Chinese-style beef stew on rice ($4.95) to Kung Pao chicken ($5.95), but the essence of this place is in its noodles. And all at good prices. My eye goes straight to the "Classic Mami," just as Liza comes up.
"Is this the original dish that Mr. Ma created in 1920?" I ask.
"Oh, yes. Nothing has changed," Liza says.
"Well, then, no question. I'll have that," I say. Then I notice huge covered tin pans in the kitchen. Must be the dumpling steamers. Mr. Ma's siomai. He stuffed them with pork, chicken, or even salted duck eggs with Chinese sausage. Hmm. Worth trying.
Except that Liza shakes her head. "We have no salted duck eggs. It would probably be too much food for you anyway. There's a lot in the soup. Wait and see."
"One other thing. Could I have an order of, uh, sweet Manila spaghetti? It's for my wife." The menu has it at $6.50.
"You don't like sweet things?" Liza says, as if there's something wrong with me.
"Oh, sure, sure. But...spaghetti?"
Now here's the funny thing. The Classic Mami dish comes, and boy, it's a generous bowl of soup, with enough noodles to stretch to the moon and back, plus chunks of chicken and beef. But, I dunno. Maybe I'm expecting too much taste. It's kind of bland. I add soy. I add hot sauce. It goes down fine, but for a 90-year phenom, I'd hoped for a little more.
I get Liza to pack the leftovers up along with the spaghetti -- also a Ma Mon Luk family creation, the menu says -- and head out into the swirl of East Plaza. Just need the 602 bus to get me to the 24th Street trolley, and it'll still be steaming by the time I lay it down in front of Carla.
I blat through our front door. Carla has actually hobbled around and laid out a couple of bowls and spoons and forks. I airlift wads of spaghetti and sausage onto each plate, we lean in, and...ohmygosh! "This is beautiful," I say to Carla. "How could I have been so wrong?"
The sweetness of the pasta, the slightly gingery saltiness of the sausage. I mean, just when you thought you'd tasted every taste in the world.
"So, it was real," Carla says quietly. "All this time, I thought I must have been just a crazy Navy kid to love this. That I'd surely grow out of it..."
We fall into a silent concentration on the job at hand, till the sweet spaghetti's almost all gone. We wipe our fangs.
"Mmm," I say, taking that last swirl of noodles, "Masarap, mahal, irog, masarap!"
"'Delicious.' In Tagalog."
"And the rest of it?"
"It means, like, 'darling, sweetheart.' Sweetheart."
Carla stands up, wobbly but determined.
"All right. I want names, and dates. Who taught you these words?"