Kam Po (HK) Kitchen
Photo from About.com
Note To Self: Carry extra batteries.
Old batteries in a camera that sucks the life out of them quicker than the whole cast of Underworld: Evolution fanging out on a 130-pound, bespectacled pipsqueak named Herbert Twillowbee can certainly ruin a good blog post.
Actually, no it didn't.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed my lunchtime trip to Kam Po (HK) Kitchen today. Originally I had intended on going to Po Kee, a similar Chinatown dive on Stockton and Pacific that specializes in noodles and jook, all for an insanely low, low price. Alas, it was closed. I was there yesterday and had the braised noodles with "beef stew", which not only was god-awful but they sat me near the bathroom, whose nasty funk kept wafting up my nose.
Due to this, I believe I may have discovered the "funk" in "a Funky Chinatown".
Despite this, I'm willing to go back to see if I can fish out any gems. Although, this may be closer to the equivalent of fishing out of the bay rather than the clear, blue sea. Lots of poor people do it, maybe you've even engaged in it (or at least considered it), but deep down you know it's just nasty.
Let's face it: the bay is the dive of fishing holes.
Back to Kam Po, I arrived to find three, young hip (honestly, I hate this word, but let's just say they weren't square, which is another word I hate) Chinese guys waiting out front who had just been summoned into the charcuterie/restaurant by the (for lack of a better term – Chinatown has many of these style of eateries) charcuterie cook. I peered in through the door to find every table in the small restaurant occupied. To the left of the doorway was the charcuterie cook chopping up cooked chicken legs and other pieces of roasted, smoked, fried, or boiled meats and offal. Beside him, hung by their necks, were shiny, dark red, roast ducks, chickens, and bright orange squid. Some hot metal trays underneath held glossy red chicken feet, tripe, and other to-go foods.
I stepped in despite not seeing an open table, perhaps praying to sit at the table of people who were just leaving. Eventually I caught the glance of a waitress who asked me how many and then motioned me over to the table in the middle; the small one with someone already sitting at it.
Now I'm no stranger when it comes to sharing tables in Chinatown restaurants, but this was just ridiculous. The table fit two, snuggly. Even though I was instructed to sit at the table, I still felt like I was invading this lady's space. So before I sat down, I asked if it was ok. She kindly motioned for me to sit and moved her cup of tea closer to make room for me.
I'm not sure what prompted it, but after looking at the menu for a while, she said something to me and I said something back, and then eventually we were in the middle of a conversation.
She was middle-aged, Chinese, had dyed reddish brown hair, a green sweater (the kind someone knits for you), and spoke conversational English.
I asked her what was good or what was popular, to which she replied the noodles. This surprised me, actually, since the place has a fully functional charcuterie complete with the guy who'll cut things up for you on the spot.
But no, it was the noodles (Leland Wong mentioned the beef chow fun in a previous email to me). "How do you like them? Thin or fat?" she said.
After telling her my love for fat chow fun noodles and attempting to convince her that I was no ordinary gweilo who happened to venture too far from Grant, I asked her what she was having. This caused her to bust a poetic move in describing her dish, the pork chow fun.
As she described the noodles, I could almost see her frying them quickly in oil, but not too much oil (!), because she doesn't like real oily noodles. And then on top of these noodles were slices of pork, which I envisioned her carefully slicing by hand, or envisioned her envisioning slicing by hand - eyes squinting with glee and face turned heavenward as if to say "um, um, um" right as she generously ladles on the gravy.
Short-haired waitress finally takes my order – words that form the equivalent of "what are you having".
"Same", I said pointing at my dining partner's plate of just arrived chow fun.
Short-haired waitress looks confused. I don't know why. Looking at Short-haired waitress, my gaydar went ballistic. No confusion there.
Seeing as though my new friend's food had just arrived and was still hot, I excused myself from conversation and, after asking if that was ok, went to reading this week's Bay Guardian. As we sat there, an older Chinese couple sat down at the table beside us.
My new friend, whose name I later learned was Julie, would occasionally look over at me, perhaps starved for conversation, or maybe not "starved", but wanting to engage in. I finally realize that I may be behaving rudely, so I put my paper down and made myself available.
Eventually our conversation struck up again, and as we talked, the old lady beside us would occasionally chime in, in Cantonese, with Julie saying something back like (I imagine, but could sort of tell) "oh, it's his first time here" and "he just knows a few words like 'Doh Jeh', ha, ha, ha".
Eventually, the old woman asked Julie, incredulously, if she was Chinese since her hair was light and she was sitting with me. This caused both of us to laugh.
When, after waiting a good, long while and joking with Julie about how they must be making the noodles from scratch, she finally shouted at the waitress who was serving another table something in Cantonese (or Mandarin, since she speaks both) like "hey, what's taking so long? This guy put his order in long ago!"
Damn! Can I take Julie everywhere with me? Like, say, the post office?
Soon enough, my pork chow fun came and oh, the fragrance! I could smell ginger, the mushrooms, some garlic, and that essence of wok. You know, wouldn't it be cool if they made a car air freshener like the pine tree, only it was essence of wok and it was shaped like a wok?
I imagine I'd be chewing up the upholstery after a long road trip.
I started chow funning down while Julie told me about how she had the day off and went to her CPA today. On her way in, she found a small purse laying on the ground. She picked it up and took it inside with her, telling the receptionist that she had just found it and asking her to open it for her. Inside was a medicare card and an ID. Also inside was a 20-dollar bill. Obviously it belonged to an elderly person who had lost it. Julie made sure the receptionist contacted the person it belong to because she understood the importance that $20 is to someone who is elderly and, most likely, poor.
Julie and I ended up talking for close to an hour about work, about her son at UC Davis, about her upcoming trip to Hong Kong, about Boston, New York, 9/11 and where she was, and about food.
When I finished and the waitress came by, I asked for the check and pointed to Julie and myself. When Julie caught wind of this, she immediately refused, but I insisted "no, no, no, no" and focused my eyes downward. She got out her change purse and insisted on paying the tax. I held out my hand as if to say "talk to the hand with all that nonsense".
The old woman sitting at the table next to us chimed in and Julie said something to her like "oh, this fella is going to pay for me and I don't even know him". More laughter.
When the bill came, it was a whopping $7.50.
Julie, you're a cheap date, but a damn fine one.
Here's to you and Kam Po!