Sometimes people express the notion that my dining life is so much more interesting and exciting than theirs. As if they couldn’t largely do the same; it just takes the will to drive too far for things too strange to be entirely comfortable. But sometimes, once in a great while thankfully, you get one that just goes completely, comically, tragically wrong from start to finish. Here’s a story like that.
I was, I admit, feeling a bit sorry for myself; Twitter was full of friends on business trips or food media junkets to Vegas or Napa, my sister the world traveler had just posted pics of herself with camels in Abu Dhabi and antelope in Senegal, and I had a tub of salad greens in the fridge. I had serious cabin fever and nothing to do about it. Well, we could at least be travelers of a sort in our own city by going to Chinatown. I picked out a place called Yan Bang Cai, fairly new on Cermak, and we headed there. Chinatown was hopping, but a couple of tables were open and we get pointed to table #1.
I’m just slow enough on the uptake to realize that us four fairly large non-Asians have been squeezed into a table the size of an elevator (and we got the shaft, ba-dum ching!) So my plan to go out and see the world means I am now squeezed even closer face to face with my family than we were at home, and basically afforded a close view of two walls while behind me, in the distance, I can hear a restaurant. It’s sort of like the vantage point you have on a music festival like Lollapalooza— from the Porta-Potties.
They’re obviously short-staffed, but we manage to get a set of menus. I had done some reading beforehand and had some dishes in mind. But I instantly realize I’m not going to find them— I’ve been given the most hilariously dumbed-down white people’s menu ever, full of Chinese-American classics like Shrimp Toast and Almond Chicken. It’s the Chinese equivalent of a guy in a sombrero and a big droopy mustache telling you to try the Taco Burger, seenyore, it’s muy bueno!
At least give it this much: it had a note advising you there was an “authentic” menu too. Though when we ask for it, in another first-in-a-long-time we’re told they’re all in use and we’ll have to wait for one. But eventually we get it and it’s a hoot in its own way, with its page telling us which dishes were particular favorites of which Chi-Commie leader (Mao, Deng Xiao-Ping, etc.) when he visited the salt mining region of Sichuan. So we order some things… and commence to wait in our Porta-Boothie.
And wait, quite a long time. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who had to, the Chinese punks in faux-hawks, skinny black jeans and tennis shoes, looking like the cast of a John Woo remake of West Side Story, who were making the most noise had time to go smoke a few times out front. Finally, one dish— a twice-cooked pork (i.e. pork belly) dish with cabbage and hot sauce arrived.
It was the best thing we would eat that night— not that much of an achievement since that list would prove to be shorter than we expected. But I really liked the kind of braised, or at least wilted and softened up, cabbage in the spicy oil. We pretty much finish it, and then… we wait some more. And more. We pass the one hour mark. Next, at least 20 minutes later, we get potstickers, gummy and pretty poor, and “small plate chicken,” which comes out smelling like Indian curry.
It’s all right, but I’d rather have good Indian food. Or middle-eastern or lots of places where they know how to do more with a chicken than this, which is kind of stew it to death. Nevertheless, we eat a fair amount of it, because it is the last food we will actually see there. Many more minutes pass, we’ve been there well over an hour, and we begin to consider scenarios of giving up. Put money on the table and walk away? I give it serious thought for the first time in years. We’re about to go when a waitress comes out. We tell her we just want our food wrapped and the check, if she can cancel the remaining dishes. Oh no, it’s already cooking, we’re told.
Perhaps she believed that. I will be charitable. Since one is soup with noodles, I don’t believe it’s really so much cooked as assembled, but let’s assume she thought that was true. We give in and sit down.
At an hour and a half we know, though, that nothing was cooking at that moment twenty or more minutes earlier. We will never get out. We are doomed to the smallest table in the slowest Chinese restaurant on earth, unable to see the actual restaurant as Plato’s cave-dwellers see only shadows, not the thing itself. My butt hurts from sitting. The only redeeming thing I can think of is that the kids are old enough to be both patient and self-possessed; if this had happened when they were five years younger and whinier, it would have been a hundred times more miserable.
One more dish arrives and we ask for it to be packaged up, and please bring the check. The check of course charges us for the last remaining undelivered item, which we want to see about as much as cholera at that point. We get her attention and point the error out. It’s on its way. Of course it is. But we cannot argue. Just package it to go, please. I’m sure at that point she ran back and told the cook to make a salt miner’s eggplant fast, or they’d lose the sale.
So at an hour and 45 minutes we finally can wedge ourselves out of the booth and leave with a full meal’s worth of leftovers. If Deng Xiao Ping had had this experience on a state visit, he’d have flooded the salt mines out of pique. Some of this I can’t fault them for— they were clearly short-handed in front, and evidently in back and on the sides, too— but I can fault them for so manifestly not thinking about it from the customer’s point of view in any way shape or form, like even admitting that it had been, and would continue to be, a loooooong f’ing time for the food. There’s really no choice; Yan Bang Cai wins Sky Full of Bacon’s lowest award, the GFY.