Bryant Wok Shop
The Bryant Wok Shop always seemed to me the perfect little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. In fact, so perfect, I never wanted to stop by.
I've walked past it for years, usually on my way to the Post Office. Because it's a Chinese restaurant, I've always been curious about how it was, but then I thought about the other Asian restaurants in my hood: Bill's Teriyaki Kitchen, Rainbow Way, and HRD.
If the Bryant Wok Shop was even remotely similar to those places, walking on by was the least I could do. Running might be better. There aren't many dives in my neighborhood, but those that are have so much divitude that it more than makes up for the upscale places down the street.
Still, the Bryant Wok Shop stood there, unmoving, unchanged after all of these years. Like a motherfucking tree that stands by the water, it has not been moved. Every time I passed it, it seemed to call out to me, like a hooker, "Hey! You! Yeah, you! I bet you want some of this, doncha?"
Or at least a crack dealer. I guess I could be mistaken. There are several crack dealers on my block (sorry Bryant Wok Shop!)
Of course, I tried to ignore it, but the more I ignored it the more I wanted to go in. Only, they were always closed! Well, not always. Only when I'm around it seems, which is after work and on the weekends. You and I both know that we desperately want what we cannot have, even if it's cheap, greasy, and of questionable origin. But the kicker is, I wasn't even sure it was all that. I just figured, "hey, look where it's at."
You know Meredith Brody isn't penning whimsical about this joint.
So today, yours truly had the day off, which means yours truly is in the midst of a four-day weekend.
Can I rub it in just a little?
But don't take that as meaning I'm not working today. Hell, you're reading my work at this very moment. Besides, I walked all up and down this little town today buying salame at Molinari's, some crusty bread from some crusty, but cute, FOB Italians at Danilo Bakery, gai lan at some place on Stockton, and Chinese dry cured bacon, duck legs, and lop chong (sausage) at the only place I would buy such things, Guang Zhou King and King sausage.
And I was busy taking pictures of trucks that deliver food to restaurants and markets for a new photo project and possibly blog entry for Bacon Press.
So after all of that walking and shopping, I was ready to take on the Bryant Wok Shop.
What I thought would be just an ordinary Chinese lunch ended up turning into a very serious reminder of how much things in this neighborhood has changed, and in turn, the real hardships some of the local business owners have had to endure.
But first things first, the food.
Nothing truly special. Sorry.
I walked in to the restaurant and was immediately greeted by an old man and middle-aged woman standing behind a steamtable. Since there were no menus in sight, except for a very bare-bones sign above the steam table, I ordered from the steam table.
Actually, the steam table entrees were pretty much pushed on to me. With just a little too much enthusiasm, the lady behind the counter kept grabbing various spoons and ladles, opening various covered trays and such, saying "Do you want this? This? This? Fried rice? How about some noodles? Two entrees just $4.50."
I could just see her inching that fried rice onto my plate, but I held back, almost sadistically, saying "Hmmm, I don't know. How much for two entrees again?"
Finally I said "OK, two entrees. How about the Chicken in Black Bean sauce. Hmm, and the Thai Curry Chicken."
"Oh, you like it spicy!" she said.
"Lady," I thought, "don't be playin' no games with me. I've had the *Ring of Fire consistently for several weeks now. You have no idea who you're talking to."
*Ring of Fire: Commonly, or uncommonly, known as Bung Burn, Red Star, or Fire in the Hole....Go ask your mother.
I grabbed my plate, or actually she grabbed it and brought it to my table. As she sat me, she pulled out a newspaper and placed it on my table and then smiled at me. "That was mighty considerate", I thought.
The food wasn't half-bad. It's what you would expect from a hole-in-the-wall like this. True, there are hole-in-the-walls with exceptional dishes, but this didn't seem like one. Because as I knew before, this is the same neighborhood which spawned Shan Indian and Pakistani restaurant, which despite the rave reviews it gets on foodie messageboards, continues to be the most mediocre South Asian food I've ever eaten (well, there was that place on Brick Lane).
As I was getting ready to leave, I asked if I could take a picture of their menu. After the usual "sure, no problem", I asked how long they had been in business. To my surprise, they've only been around 8 years, which is only one year longer than I've lived in the hood.
This question, to my surprise, provoked a long story by the chef/owner, a kind and humble older man, that by the end made me feel guilty that I hadn't bought ten entrees and given them to the winos up by Jacks Market. Depressing isn't even the word. I'm talking Travis, ok.
According to the owner, when the restaurant opened, the dot com boom was in full swing and his restaurant was so busy, he had doubled the seating and had 5 employees. All was well for 2 years, and then suddenly the crash came.
Business hasn't been the same since and now he's down to 2 employees. He keeps waiting for the supposed biotech boom that everyone seems to keep saying is going to happen, but as for now, his restaurant is mostly empty, even during lunch. The guys who work down at the auto mechanics shops down the street don't come in since most of them brown-bag their lunches. Truckers and other blue-collar workers still come in, but only because the price is low.
The folks who work at Organic, Wired, and other high-tech related businesses and who eat out favor the more expensive restaurants now.
"This neighborhood has changed a lot", he says. And actually, I was really, really touched and really sad for him. I saw a side that I knew was there, but until now, never felt much empathy for.
Because, you see, I looked at the dot com boom and eventual bust as a renter, as a working-class schmoe who could be evicted at any moment and displaced to the East Bay or further. There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't feel the real estate speculator's noose around my neck. When the industry imploded, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not only could I stop worrying about being evicted so that more ugly and unaffordable lofts could be built, but there was less traffic on my street as well.
I was glad it happened, and frankly I was a little glad to see these neo-49ers leave town back to Seattle, Austin, or wherever they came from. I admit that I was happy, even though I knew they wanted to stay and that many of them weren't the evil, gentrifying bobos that they were made out to be.
I met one of these ex-dot comers weirdly enough while working out at the gym. He approached me and asked if he could take some photos of me. After getting over being creeped out and figuring out that he wasn't some perv, he told me the photos were to be part of a series of advertisements for the new Palm Pilot. I guess the scheme and business venture never went forward, since after the photo shoot at some 60s motel on Lombard, I never heard back for him. But if you come across a touched-up, photoshopped version of this photo in any ads, let me know. It's the closest I've come to America's Next Top Model.
That's me on the nightstand...losing my religion.
Unless things pick up very soon, I have a feeling the Bryant Wok Shop won't be there for much longer. That's a shame since the folks who run it really seem like good and honest people. And you know, we need more, not less, places like that around here.
OK, ok, ok. So the food isn't fabulous. But come on, Quiznos or Subway or McDonalds is?? You know for the price and the hot, freshly made Chinese food, plus the standard American breakfast items, the Bryant Wok Shop can't be beat...welllll, unless they're up against HRD, but then HRD's Chinese menu can't compete with BWS.
So if you are reading this and you work in the neighborhood, do me a favor. Patronize this little joint. If not every day or every other day, which is understandable, then at least once a week. I know it's like charity and in the food and business world there is no place for charitable giving, but try it once. At least. And then, do whatever.
Ok. Speechifying over.
UPDATE: As of March 17, 2007, the Bryant Wok Shop is no more. It finally succumbed to the hardships it endured. In its place is V2 Malaysia Cuisine. Good luck to them.