Dinner at the Chinese Restaurant

While we were stuffing our faces with egg rolls, wonton soup and spare ribs, I could believe we were a happy family

We would all pile into the family car—a grayish 1954 Buick sedan: Mom and Dad in the front seat, the three of us in the back. My older sister Linda sat strategically between me and Paul, so we wouldn't fool around and make Dad angry enough to stop the car and say, "One more word and we're going to turn around and go home. Is that what you want?"

And we'd both look down and say, no that wasn't what we wanted at all we really, truly, deeply wanted to go to the Chinese Restaurant and we would be good boys from now on we promised, swear to God. Linda looked smug, glad we were getting what we deserved. She was convinced we were the most annoying brothers in the world. She may have even been willing to give up the Chinese dinner just to see us punished. But, in the end, we all knew, including Dad, that he was not going to turn around and take us home. Not now, not when we were so close to Chinatown that we could almost smell the fishy odors wafting through the open car windows, just like when we were getting near the ocean at the Jersey Shore and could smell the salt air.

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Dad turned back to the front, put the car in gear, and drove on, and my brother and I looked at each other, over Linda, and grinned.

Chinatown in Philadelphia was down by the waterfront in the few blocks surrounding the approach to the Ben Franklin Bridge. I always thought it was strange that a neighborhood could be named in such a way. It would be like someone calling our West Philadelphia neighborhood "Jew Town" or parts of North Philly "Negro Place." But the people in Chinatown didn't seem to mind, as far as I could tell. All the shops and restaurants announced it on their store fronts. Maybe they were proud of being Chinese and didn't want to be mixed up with the rest of us. Their food was sure different and a whole lot better, I thought, than the stuff we ate back in Jew Town.

The hostess always seemed unusually happy to see us, smiling and bowing and quickly leading us to our favorite table, right near the fish tank—a beautiful, big, bubbling aquarium with all sorts of colorful tropical fish swimming around. My brother and I were big fans of tropical fish. We had our own cloudy 10-gallon aquarium at home where we raised guppies and black mollys and tiny little catfish; but our aquarium was dwarfed by the one here at the Chinese Restaurant, which was crystal clear and had to be at least 100 gallons and full of odd-looking fish, some of which seemed big enough to eat. Paul and I argued later about the fate of those fish.

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We didn't even have to read the menus. We all knew what we wanted. But we looked anyway, just to be polite. Being polite was important. I don't remember talking very much before we ordered. Our family wasn't very chatty. I don't think Dad felt he had anything to say to children and we kids knew we weren't supposed to bother him. Mom always warned us about this: "Don't talk to your father," she'd say. "He's got too much on his mind." I always wondered what terrible things were going on in his head, but I knew better than to ask. I had learned the hard way not to irritate my father.

But at the Chinese Restaurant, the mood was more easygoing. Sometimes Dad would even smile and tell Mom some story about one of his patients. And he wouldn't even get mad if Paul and I started laughing about something or began teasing Linda.

When the Chinese waitress came to take our order, Dad was, of course, the one who spoke. "We'll start with the egg rolls," he told her, speaking slowly in his deep doctor's voice. My taste buds were already throbbing, thinking about the golden brown, crispy rolls that would soon arrive along with the fiery hot mustard that you could dip your section of egg roll into if you dared. "And we'll have wonton soup," Dad told her. It was only years later that I discovered there were other types of Chinese soups.

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"Then we'll have a double order of spare ribs." Paul and I could hardly sit still at this point. Spare ribs were our absolute favorites. More bone than meat, but so tasty and greasy. What could be better than eating food with your hands, and right in front of your father without him reaching over and smacking your hand with his fork. "Also we'll have the chow mein." He waited for the waitress to write it down on her pad, but she was nodding and smiling, way ahead of him.

Then sometimes Dad would look at me and nod, which meant I got to tell the waitress the next dish. "Moo goo gai pan," I almost shouted. Dad must have known how much I loved to say that name. I didn't care so much about the dish itself, something full of chicken and mushrooms and other vegetables, but the name was magical: moo goo gai pan.

Then it was Mom's turn to order, and like everything else, it was always the same. "And I will have the shrimp in oyster sauce." It somehow seemed so elegant and exotic—two foods that we never ate at home, combined into one dish.

We didn't have to order the bowls of white rice or the hot tea; we knew the waitress would bring those without asking. That's how wonderful eating at the Chinese Restaurant was. Hot tea in little porcelain cups and all our favorite dishes served under gleaming metal covers, and all of us passing the platters and the rice around the table and Dad asking who was ready for more soup to be ladled into their bowl and Mom smiling as she forked up her pink shrimp, and for at least that moment I could believe we were a happy family.

By the time the fortune cookies were delivered, along with the check, Paul and I felt brave enough to read the silly messages out loud: "You will meet a dark stranger." "Healthy life can be yours." "One's love is like the ocean." "Keep always a happy face." Even Mom and Linda joined in. We all were laughing. I wanted it to go on and on. I wanted us to live forever in the Chinese Restaurant.

But after Dad had paid the check and left a few extra dollars on the table for a tip, he cinched up his loosened tie, slipped back into his jacket, and said, "OK, we're all done here. It's time to go back."

"No, please," I burst out. "I don't wanna leave." Mom shot a warning look in my direction. But Dad just stared straight ahead, as if I wasn't even there.

Tags: food