Chinatown? What Chinatown? I’m standing at Third Avenue at Market. Looking down to…Chinatown? Who could ever tell?
A century or so ago, we all would have been able to, my friend Dr. Chuang once told me. He runs the Chinese Historical Museum at Third and J, which I love. “Where the convention center is, a fleet of oceangoing Chinese junks was anchored,” he said, “and the fishing village was right on the beach at the bottom of Third Avenue.”
Fifteen years ago, the city promised the Chinese community a grand archway announcing Chinatown, with Foo Dogs guarding the entrances. Last time I was here, three or four years ago, they were still making promises.
Tonight, as I happened by, weaving my way toward the trolley tracks, I thought: Why not eat Chinese in Chinatown? There has to be at least one place, but…wrong. Candelas is about the only restaurant here, and that’s contemporary Mexican. Can you imagine San Francisco’s Chinatown with no eats? There must be something…
I popped into the museum to ask Dr. Chuang about this. “The only one even near is Red Pearl, on J street,” he said. “But it’s too Americanized. There’s Panda in Horton Plaza. Good, but a little expensive.”
So now I’m wandering, because I ain’t going home with an empty belly. Carla’s already eaten, but I know she’d appreciate a kung pao chicken to snack on later. And here’s the irony: It’s not till I get back to Fifth, near E Street, which is full-on Gaslamp, that I finally pass a Chinese eatery. China Too is the name: “New York Style Fine Chinese Cuisine.”
“Listen,” this guy is saying to the cashier when I walk in. “I’m from New York. No way is this New York–style Chinese. Just like the ‘New York’ pizzas in this town. No way.” But at this point, I don’t care if it’s Timbuktu-style Chinese.
I sit down at a red-clothed table. There’s maroon carpet, faux-timber paneling, framed Chinese silk fans on the walls, and hanging red lanterns. Waiter brings the menu. Hmm…usual suspects, but it’s comforting when every place else is trying fusion, ethnic modern, health-guilt. But this is Chinese, like those New York gals in Sex in the City order by phone.
I cut to the chase and get the evening dinner special: For “One Dinner Combination,” $7.99. It’s a deal, with egg roll, rice, hot-and-sour soup (or egg drop), and either sweet-and-sour pork, beef soft noodle, hot garlic chicken and broccoli, Chinese veggies and chicken, or chop suey. I like chop suey because it’s a genuine part of American history. The Chinese who built our railroads opened up eateries along the way and created a “fusion” dish, a slap-together of veggies with meat and a harmless sauce that those good ol’ boys raised on corned beef could handle. ’Course, I like spicy. But I also like the taste of, well, history.
“Shrimp chop suey,” I tell Ning, the waiter. Turns out, he’s from the far north of China and is here studying business and working part-time. Except now, with China making every widget in the world, I wonder if this is the right way ’round.
The diners seem to be mostly students and couples who don’t have the dinero other places on this street demand. People coming in are a little shy but then get seduced by the family atmosphere, especially the loud conversations in Chinese between the lady manager and the cook and the Chinese customers at the back.
“Actually, most of the food is for American tastes,” says Ning. “But when Chinese people come in, we alter it. Add spices, for instance.”
The hot-and-sour soup is great, and I get about ten large shrimp with my mix of bean sprouts, celery, carrots, snow peas, and sliced water chestnuts. It’s a healthy meal for the price of a cocktail next door at Osetra.
I wander out with Carla’s kung pao dinner and find myself back on Third, in Chinatown. Guess I’m still hoping for something Chinese. Earlier, I noticed that the Ideal Hotel said “Tea Room” in front. Probably they mean “tea” in the British way, but maybe I can at least have Chinese tea in Chinatown.
I wander in. It’s plain, but clean and interesting, with art on the walls, a pool table, and a shockingly serene atmosphere. Turns out the building’s 95 years old. Looks Victorian. It used to be a Chinese “house of joy...” thumpa-thump on the boards upstairs. Now it’s a (ha!) meditation and healing center. People are gathered on sofas, reading auras in easy chairs, leaning on the tea bar. And — yes! The counter has organic Chinese teas, among others. Names like Oo-Long, Bao Zhong, and Gaba Oolong. Huh. Gaba Oolong’s label says it promotes the metabolization of fats. Could use that. The teas are gathered by an O.B. guy named the Mad Monk.
Jessica, the healer and yoga leader, stands waiting behind the counter. Looks 25, could be 73. That’s what yoga does, I hear. I ask for the Bao Zhong, a “perfect blend between a green tea and an oolong.” Costs $3.50, not cheap. But an hour later I’m still hangin around, sucking on the bitter water, and yakking with these guys. Gotta wonder: What’s this beautiful place doing in the middle of the whole garish downtown money scene?
On my way out I come across Dr. Chuang again, just locking up the museum. I ask about that long-promised arch. “Good news,” he says. “We’re getting it. The city says next year.”
“Great,” I say, but I’m not holding my breath. ■
The Place: China Too, 916 Fifth Avenue, downtown, 619-239-4283
Type of Food: Chinese
Prices: General Tso’s chicken lunch, $5.99; two egg rolls, $1.95; moo shu pork with rice, $7.95; pork fried rice, $6.10; chicken chop suey, rice, $6.95; dinner combo (egg roll, soup, rice) shrimp chop suey, $7.99
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 3, 7, 11, 15, 120, 901
Nearest Bus Stop: 5th and Broadway