Saturday, May 19, 2007

Cheap Chinese No More

It was with much dismay that I found my favorite cheap Chinese place that AJ and I used to go to, closed.

Granted we hadn't been there in a couple of years (okay, like four or five) but that didn't lessen the blow to me. The reality is, the place was never the same after we stop getting free food there.

Free food you ask? Why yes, AJ and I would get free food. Which appealed to my incredibly cheap ass (yes I am that Chinky - free food and I'm there), but also doubly functioned to me as a nice safety net, as I used to have a paranoid fear that I would be homeless and not have a place to stay or anything to eat.

It's an odd fear, something that I have since gotten over, but back when I first moved to San Francisco I used to figure out ways to eat on the cheap/free just in case I ever became homeless/jobless.

It was easy at first. After all, I moved here in 1998 the height of the dot-com boom. I probably could have had a free meal every single day if I wanted it, by going to dot com launch parties, dot com recruiting events, and the random party that friends of friends (at that point I only had three or four friends) were having. Digital wealth was everywhere, and people seemed to throw the money around as if it wasn't real (turns out it wasn't). I don't know how many theme parties I was invited to back then - 70's disco, wear a mask, dead celebrity, the fashion faux pas, if you want a theme party, let me know, I have a back catalog of ideas due to the fact that everyone and their roommate was having a theme party.

In the meanwhile, I took note of where and what I could eat, and how I could survive if for some reason I had no means to buy food.

Sadly the dot com boom went belly up bust, and there went my meal ticket. But soon I met AJ and we started to frequent this Cheap Chinese Place in the Castro, and I knew that I could survive if things got bad.

What made it so great? Well the food was actually decent - as decent as a Chinese place that had pre-made all the food and left it on a steam table can be. I knew to avoid the egg rolls (fried never really lasts all that well on a steam table) as well as the dim sum (dim sum really isn't all the good unless it's from a dim sum specialty place). But their pork ribs were delightfully sticky sweet, and AJ had a fondness for their chicken teriyaki.

But a funny thing happened as we went there more and more often. The young woman who worked there started to recognize us, and give us larger and larger portions of the food. We'd ask for a small carton, or a combo meal, and she would pack the carton until it could barely close. The sheer amount of food became so ridiculous that AJ and I took to ordering just one combo meal and splitting it between the two of us. Something that, if you know AJ's appetite, is saying a lot.

Soon, however, we noticed that she was starting to charge us less and less. A combo meal usually ran $7-8 (two items, plus a starch of your choice - all mounded so high, that the sucker need a small forklift to carry it home), but soon she was charging us $6. And then $5.

Soon it was $4, and then $3. And then Chinese New Year came around. I told AJ that it was Chinese New Year, and that he should tell her Happy Chinese New Year. It always sounds more impressive when a white person wishes someone Happy Chinese New Year. Well, either more impressive (that they know it's Chinese New Year) or creepy (ooh Creepy Rice Queen - stay away). He obliged and she started to jump up and down and wished him a Happy Chinese New Year back. Then she gave us our food. We went to pay with a $20 (not even asking how much we owed), and she went to the cash register. She returned with our change. As we left, I asked AJ what we paid. He looked down and counted our bills. She had given us back one $10 bill, and two $5 dollar bills. We had got our food for free.

Soon when we went, we would order the food, and she would serve us, and then look to us blankly when we tried to pay. She took to looking puzzled everytime we pulled out our wallet, and finally she would just tell us "oh... you already paid." No pretense there. She was giving us the food for free.

After about a year, AJ and I moved in together, to our current apartment, and it was about four blocks farther away from the Cheap Chinese place, so we frequented it less. In truth, as much as we loved getting free food, it always was slightly awkward, and I think we ended up going there much less because of that. We didn't want to take advantage of her generosity - though obviously she didn't care - but we just started to go less and less.

Finally one day, we noticed she wasn't working there anymore. Apparently she had given too much food away for free. Perhaps she went off to college, or finally graduated and moved away. Perhaps she was caught giving away the food. Or perhaps she just got sick of working at steam table at a Cheap Chinese Place and has a better job. Either way I'd like to think that she's having fun and enjoying life out there, with a better job, being generous to other gay couples.

Either way she wasn't there any more, we no longer got the free food, and we pretty much stopped going.

But now the Cheap Chinese Place is closed. I guess it's okay though. I can afford to buy my food now - and I no longer have that fear that I will be homeless or poverty stricken on the streets. But part of me is sad that the Cheap Chinese Place is out of business. I just hope that all the free food that we got wasn't the reason they closed. I just hope that whatever business the family who owned that shop opens up next does well. And they hire someone who doesn't give away the goods for free...

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At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. That's great that you still care about her and wish/know that she is off somewhere else being happy and remembering the days of her free food give aways. I love resturants/stories like that. There is an idian place right by my house that the man and I always go to and we have noticed too that we are getting more food and paying less for it. There is nothing better then a full tummy full of free food! Even though all free things come to an end, there are always other oppurtunites out there! For all you gourmet/travel enthusiast, Gourmet magazine is running a contest where you could instantly win a trip for 2 to a luxury resort for 2 days. Check it out and watch a clip from a top NY chef, answer 5 simple questions and find out if you're an instant winner. Its that simple. Just some inside scoop since I work with Gourmet.

At 10:22 PM, Blogger jackhonky said...

I've actually tried to enter the Gourmet contest, but to no avail. Perhaps you could rig it so that I could win, or at least get a consolation prize!

I actually really like GOURMET magazine - it's probably my favorite food magazine.

But life has transpired that I keep on getting BON APPETIT subscriptions for free. I had a friend that worked at Conde Naste years ago, and she got me a free subscription to BON APPETIT (I should have suggested Gourment, but by the time I mentioned it, she had already submitted my subscription).

Then recently I purchased a significant amount of cooking utensils for the holidays at Sur La Table, and I got a free subscription to Bon Appetit again. I also received the Bon Appetit cookbook for Christmas, and it too comes with year subscription of Bon Appetit.

Oh well. I'm not complaining. Though the recipes on Bon Appetit are a bit plebian, I still enjoy it. I'm just waiting for a free GOURMET magazine subscription to fall into my lap!

Guess I shouldn't complain about free stuff now should I? :)

At 12:31 AM, Blogger Rita said...

Aww! I, too, am sad your cheap chinese place is gone! I didn't know it got so extreme--to the point the food was blatantly, outright free--but I remember the mystery of it getting cheaper and cheaper. That was hilarious.

Did you ever do nice things for her back? Like bring some of your excellent baked goods?


At 12:33 AM, Blogger Rita said...

I really like this title of this post, by the way.



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