At the back of the hill

Warning: May contain traces of soy, wheat, lecithin and tree nuts. That you are here
strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton.
And that you might like cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


The restaurant was half empty when she sat down, the mid-day rush had not yet begun. After carefully studying the menu, she chose a bowl of wonton noodle soup, and a side order of stir-fried mustard green stalks. Then, having dispensed with the essential preamble to lunch she drank a bit of tea and looked around with bright intelligent curiosity. She had never been here before.
That is to say, she came here once a very long time ago, when it was still a neighborhood standard. But when she started working downtown, she passed by one day and noted the decline. Like many old establishments, the spark of inspiration disappeared, and the owners coasted onward to a disinterested retirement.
Eventually it got sold, then gutted, remodelled, painted.....
An entirely new modern kitchen installed.
Hot-pot place on second floor.
For evenings only.

She had forgotten about the high ceiling. Many older buildings here had those high ceilings, as there was always a mezzanine loft above the business floor for storage, and often, living quarters. Her uncle's grocery store had had precisely the same thing. Back in the fifties he and his wife had lived there, but by the time her first cousin was born they had moved to a flat uphill, beyond Powell Street. As children she and her cousins had played above the store, sometimes disturbing boxes and releasing a cloud of dust over the racks on the ground floor. It always upset her auntie when that happened, and they'd be chased out into the street or forced to do their homework.

Two wide screens. One in the middle of the wall along the side, one above a front window. She presumed the one above the window had been placed there so that whoever was at the counter could follow the soap opera that was playing. It looked frightful. An elderly woman in period costume was weeping and flailing her arms, while a pie-faced maiden of thirtyfive-playing-sixteen stood by helplessly, looking theatrically anguished. And goobus-innocent to the point of slack-jaw.
She surmised that this was the smarmy good-girl daughter-in-law.
Far too pampered-looking to be the maid servant.
Not angry enough to be a daughter.

Her food came, and enthusiastically she dug in, yanking the yellow noodles fiercely up, skein dripping, to enjoy them while they were still al dente. Wonton noodle soup can also be served with rice-stick, if one has a calmer temperament. But tradition dictates thin fresh wheat noodles, added on top, barely cooked. Eat them fast! Con brio. It's sheer goodness!
While chewing she beckoned the waitress over and requested a dish with some extra oyster sauce. She loved oyster sauce. And she couldn't believe that it had not been invented several centuries ago.
Surely the combination of condensed savouriness and dense pourable darkness was ancient! It seemed like such an intuitive concept. Concentrate a wonderful flavour, and use it to intensify everything!

Dip the mustard green stalk, then bite and crunch. Another. Then dip one of the lovely dumplings. Lunch, away from the throng on Kearny Street near Bush, was something to be savoured. How much better if surrounded by an environment that represented home.
And eight lovely wontons! The broth, too, was excellent, but the dumplings were the star of the show. Fresh shrimp, barely chopped, bit of pork, handmade skins. Smooth, slick, sweet and juicy and savoury and textural at the same time. A hint of fragrance from the chopped garlic chives floating in the bowl. And perfect thin noodles to fill you up.
The plate of green stalks made it a balanced meal, the added oyster sauce satisfied the little girl within.

Without asking, the waitress refreshed her tea.

On screen, the dowager howled about ruination.

An old lady at the counter ordering food to go gave animated instruction on precisely how the fish should be cooked, and be sure to use ONLY fatty meat in the black mushroom duck combo - I very much like fatty!

Two tables over, a fat faced boy brat was objecting vociferously to his parents demand that he eat some more saang choi -- hate it, hate it, HATE it -- but the parents insisted.

At the table near the door, a painter in overalls lovingly absorbed a plate of fried porkchop and "Italian noodles", plus another cup of milk-tea, extra sweet please.

She dipped the last stalk in the oyster sauce.



*      *      *      *      *

Personally, I'm not so much an oyster sauce kind of guy. Sure, I like it, but it's something which I'd put on fried eggs (along with a dash Tabasco). And who orders a plate of fried eggs at a cha-chanteng? On the other hand, I've had their salt and pepper fried spare ribs, and asked them to bring me Sriracha -- they've got several bottles in the glass-fronted refrigerator at the wait station.

But mustard green stalk IS very good. And all crunchy cooked vegetables taste better with mr. Lee Kum-Shueng's marvelous invention.
Actually, so does a good beefsteak.
They've go that too.

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