We went into The City to see a show this past weekend. “Wicked” truly lived up to its advance billing. I got all misty, like the big puss-boy I am, at the end of Act I. After the matinee, we decided to have some Chinese food before we headed home. We drove down Van Ness to Broadway and went through the tunnel, emerging in Chinatown.
Coming out of the Broadway tunnel always makes me think of the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he digs that really deep hole and emerges upside-down in China. You come out of the darkness, and FM radio silence and all the signs on the streets and buildings are now in Chinese characters; and you know what Bugs meant when he says he knew he should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque.
We went into a place at Stockton and Broadway that my wife knew from her days living in SF. We really had a great meal, but service there really demonstrated the cultural differences between East and West.
As we usually do with Chinese food, we ordered way too much stuff. My daughter laughed as the different people brought more and more plates and shoved stuff around on our tiny table to make room for everything.
She and my wife laughed again when I espoused my “Show Crab” conspiracy theory (show us one, serve us another). We watched the cook come out of the kitchen, pluck a large, wriggling, live Dungeness from the tank near the front door and return to the kitchen. It was about 3 minutes later that the waiter brought our huge plate of fried crab to the table. The crab had been killed and cleaned, the legs and claws were all separated and cracked; it had been fried, sauced and plated impossibly fast. We watched to see if they would show us the “smoking gun”: the cook re-emerging to return the “Show-Crab” to its tank to await its next performance. No go. I remain skeptical.
It wasn’t until the end of the meal that I was really sure who our waiter was (he was the guy who took the money) because four different people came to our table during different stages of the meal. Division of labor is common in Western restaurants too, but you can usually tell food-runner-guy from order-taker-guy from busboy. But here, I couldn’t tell who was supposed to be doing what. They all stood facing us in a shoulder to shoulder line up against the kitchen pick-up window about four feet from our table throughout the course of the meal; and despite this close proximity to us and to one another, none of them seemed to communicate with the others about what was going on with our table at different stages of our meal.
They all attempted repeatedly to clear plates. I had to tell them, “No, I’m still eating that. No, I’m still eating that. NO, I AM STILL EATING THAT!!” One guy dropped the check when we were a little over halfway done. I know people don’t usually order dessert in Chinese places, but at least let me finish the entrees. We were paying with plastic, but leaving a cash tip. After running our card, it was returned to the table and my wife signed. No sooner had the pen left her hand someone grabbed the slip from between the many plates still on the table (they had thankfully given up on clearing by that time). When they noticed that there was nothing written on the tip line of the slip, it was returned to us. We left our cash tip on the table and as we were standing up to leave, the Gang of Four moved in to clear the table before we had a chance to even push in our chairs.
There are many clichés around Chinese restaurants. The gigantic menus with10 pages of stuff like Pork Blood Jelly or the weird desserts with beans in them. I swear they put stuff like that on there just to see if us “round-eyes” will order it. There’s the disinterested waiter who is watching the chicks and the cars go by outside as you order dishes, nodding his head and saying, “ya, good dish, good dish…”; the surly owner who, and this actually happened to me once, insisted after a two hour meal that “You go now! Other people coming, this table!!” And of course no great Chinese restaurant experience is complete without having to go through the kitchen to get to the tiny bathroom. Not sure I needed to see that bucket of frogs sitting on the floor in there…
In Chinese restaurants you can ask the waiter to bring out dishes in a certain order all you want (“We’ll start with the Hot Barbequed Prawns and Pot stickers, then we’ll have the Salt and Pepper Whole Crab, Pork Chow Mein and a side of steamed rice…) but you will only receive them one way: the order in which they are ready. This is true even in “Western” style restaurants in Asia. We were at a very modern hotel restaurant in Malaysia where an old friend, an American, was the GM. We were a party of four and when only three out of four first courses arrived, we politely waited. Our friend said “You better go ahead and start…” because he knew it might be some time before the fourth dish arrived.
These are not really major issues to us because we know what to expect. The fact is that many of the things that most Americans would consider rudeness or service flaws are cultural norms for Chinese. It is only on special occasions that a meal is lingered over. Otherwise, it’s eat and get back to work. Meals, especially in restaurants, are always eaten “family style” and everything is shared; and most dishes are not strictly defined as a starter or a main course. They’re just dishes, so serving them in a particular order is not a priority. But the old’ Bait and Switch on the crab is probably something learned from American seafood purveyors.