916 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
"I love you, my little lotus blossom, but it's Chinese." "I tell you, Edward, it's American."
Carla and I are sitting at the maroon-clothed table, glowering from behind our menus. The issue is Dish Number L-17, "Chop Suey."
This isn't the greatest start. I'd promised her a special lunch, in the Gaslamp, after she walked 400 steps in one go. She went 425. Now, however, here in this little Chinese place, I can see we're not on the same page.
"This is it?" Carla says. "Not some, like, grand Italian place?"
"Never judge a book by its cover," I say.
"Bedford, I swear. You never change."
She's right. I like this kind of restaurant. It's not glad-ragged out for the rich and fatuous, but it's still nice. Like, Chinese fans on the plywood walls, a laughing Buddha or two -- and this beautiful menu. Beautiful prices, that is.
"Complete Lunch," I read. "$5.55."
Hey, hey! Includes soup and any of 20 main dishes, plus fortune cookie. Beat that in the Gaslamp.
"And see, darling?" I point to the front of the menu. "'New York--Style Fine Chinese Cuisine.' That means real Chinese: Chop Suey..."
Which is how we get onto the origins thing. We're still arguing when the lady of the house comes up to the table, looking expectant. Time for decisions.
The first two are easy. Coffee for Carla ($1.00). Chinese hot tea for moi ($1.00). Then it's a question of soup. Carla goes for the hot-and-sour, and I choose egg drop.
The egg drop's fine, with a plate of crispy noodles to crumble and drop in, but oh, man, when Carla gives me a taste, I wish I'd had the hot-and-sour. Tangy, dark, but not heavy, not too peppery.
"It is a Mandarin recipe," says a guy everybody calls Robert. He's sitting at the cashier's desk up front. Must be the owner. "I learned it in New York. Ours is mild, only white pepper. Making it too hot is wrong, but so many chefs do it."
Stephanie, Robert's wife, is back to take our main order. 'Course we could have had a big soup, like a wor wonton noodle soup "with big shrimp, chicken, and fresh vegetables" (Stephanie says wor means "big stockpot") if we hadn't had our little soups. But, hey, the list is ample. They have things like green pepper steak and onions with egg roll and rice (they all come with egg roll and rice), "Kung Po" Hot Chicken, and the rest of the well-known array: orange chicken, beef broccoli, hot garlic chicken broccoli, fried chicken wings, sweet-and-sour pork or chicken, shrimp and veggies, chicken lo mein. Carla lands on the curry chicken, hangin' in there with her Indian thing. Me, what the heck: chicken chop suey. Just to see what it does look like.
"But why?" Carla asks. "It's just a pile of a steamed veggies with noodles or rice. They call it 'chopped sewage' where I come from. I keep telling you, man, it's not Chinese."
I pick up my pot and pour tea into my cuplet from a great height to add authority to what I'm about to say.
So, okay, my chop suey is the pile of veggies. Cabbage, more cabbage, carrots, sliced chestnut, baby corn, bamboo, and bean sprouts -- natch -- plus that egg roll and chunks of chicken. And a plate of plum sauce. I'll say this: with the fried rice, no man could starve on this dish, and with splots of soy sauce and dunks of the egg roll into the plum sauce, the pleasure's in the taste, the volume, and the thought that right next door, folks are spending ten times this much just to get through the appetizers. Plus, the veggies taste fresh and crisp.
Carla lets me have one spoonful of her curry chicken. Mmm. Tangy, dammit. I hand her a forkful of chop suey cabbage.
"As I say. Pure American."
Okay, we need to settle this. Time to call in the big guns.
Robert comes on over. He's an affable gent. Had a restaurant in New York. "It was on 45th," he says. "We had lots of customers from the UN and showbiz, Kofi Annan, Robin Leach, the 'Rich and Famous Lifestyles' guy. He always had our dumplings, pot stickers. Itzhak Perlman, the violinist..."
Man. Can't help shooting a look at Carla. Heh heh. She's impressed -- I can tell.
Robert's from Taiwan. From wa-ay back. "My family escaped to there from Canton in 1700. We were running from the barbarians. The Manchus."
Wow. So if anyone does, Robert should know if chop suey is Chinese or American, right?
"Well, maybe both," Robert says. "They say that in 1896, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Li Hung-Chang, had had too many rich foods at banquets in New York, so he had his chef make up a healthy dish that Chinese and Americans could eat."
Huh. Whatever, all this erudition seems to have seduced Carla. "We're coming back for your birthday," she tells me.
"Ah, birthday?" Robert says. "Be sure to have noodles, for long life, and egg whites, for new life. And try those dumplings. Only $4.25 for six. Same as Robin Leach ate. And our ginger garlic dishes are number one."
"Number one?" I start looking.
"Actually, numbers 22, 23, 35, 51, 60, 97..."
"Open your fortune cookie," I say to Carla, as we get ready to leave.
"It says, 'Several admirers are watching you.' What does yours say?"
I crack mine open.
"'You will hear pleasant news.'"
"Ed, darling, I need to tell you something."
"You were right. This was so interesting. And I'm glad we didn't spend a lot..."
"Well, that is pleasant news."
"So we can spend more when I get to 500 steps, right?"
"Hey, babe, get to 500 steps, let's see if there's a China Three."