HRD Coffee Shop
It's taken a while for me to figure out what I like and don't like about the HRD Coffee Shop.
Initially, when playing hooky from work, I sometimes use to put on my sandals, the baseball cap from the company I was laid off of, and dark sunglasses and mosey on down to HRD for some cheap and greasy Chinese food. Of course, with it being so close to home, I almost never stuck around since I still had hours of watching Montel, Ricky Lake (Ricky's Real!), Mother Love, and a bazillion technical school commercials left at the hizzouse. Hey! Know this one? "With Western Career College…duh-duh, duh, duh, duh, You can doo-oo it!" Or how about, "for the best car rates in town, call 1-800 General now!"
Anyway, before I plopped back down on the futon, I would open my styrofoam to-go container to reveal a beef chow fun that was neither much fun or chow-worthy. It looked like beef chow fun, kinda smelled like beef chow fun, but was missing something.
After a few more visits, I realized what it was missing. It was missing "wok breath". No need to brush your teeth, wok breath (or wok hay) is what Grace Young describes as the act of breathing "energy into a stir-fry, giving foods a unique concentrated flavor and aroma" that only a wok can give.
Instead, it had more of a "griddle breath" flavor, which is the energy going into a dish that gives it a concentrated flavor and aroma of hot cakes cooked together with sausages, eggs, cheeseburgers, chow mein, chow fun, chicken steak, and the occasional clumsy hand. And you may brush your teeth now.
For this reason, I'm not so hot on the fried noodles at HRD. So instead, let's travel from the East back to the West without ever leaving the comfort of our counter stool.
Walking into HRD, one feels as if one is walking into some gritty, urban diner from yesteryear, and actually one is, so that kind of blows away my analogy I was just trying to work up here.
Anyway, I swear, nothing in this place has changed, except probably parts of the menu and maybe a few decorations hanging on the wall. The window sign has taken decades to peel and fade away and if I could drag the whole place to the Cow Palace in my Big Red Radio Flyer for the Antiques Roadshow, one of the appraisers probably would suggest I insure it well over its actual worth and warn me not to repaint or touch up anything lest it loses its patina, which apparently is like gold to a collector of anything, especially Chinese American diners.
And HRD is in a really old brick building that was built at a time before sleek modernity and cheap-ass developers who take no pride in building anything grand or of beauty anymore.
While it looks dark and forboding from the outside (I blame much of this on the ratty awning), it's actually quite bright and warm on the inside. Everything concerning your food is straight ahead of you as you walk in. There is the open kitchen, the steam table, the menu, and the cashier.
There are counters in the front for sitting (one at the windows and one directly behind) and tables in a backroom, which has never appealed to me seeing as it looks depressing back there. Besides, the counters are sooo cool, with original Formica finishes in that old 50s whimsical pattern. Despite it's age, the furnishings in the front and the kitchen itself looks well taken care of.
In it's layout, it kind of reminds me of New Lun Ting, only a little smaller and with more counter space, like a true, old school coffee shop. Like New Lun Ting, HRD is run by Chinese people often serving American food to non-Chinese people (actually more so) and having that one-on-one relationship with repeat customers. Something tells me that if I went into HRD, as I have in New Lun Ting, and ordered the same thing twice, by the third time the hosts would know my name and exactly what I was having. I know this because they don't shy away from making eye contact and trying to establish who you are in their minds.
But besides this, I suspect that the reason HRD has so many local regulars has to do with serving basic American diner/greasy spoon food. I've noticed often that while staring up at the menus above the kitchen, trying to decide on what to have, most of the customers a) frequent HRD on a regular basis, b) know the owner, his wife, and daughter and are on a first name basis, and c) don't order the Chinese food.
This is totally speculation, but here it goes nonetheless. The HRD Coffee Shop probably started back in the 40s or 50s serving basic diner food to all of the warehouse workers and the locals back when the neighborhood was predominantly black and Filipino. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the original owners were black, Filipino, or American-born Chinese. Eventually, the original owner closed shop and transferred the restaurant to the new owners, whom I've always assumed were the man (cook), the wife (waitress/cashier and sometimes cook) and the daughter (extra help).
So I called HRD to find out.
To my surprise, the husband and wife aren't the owners. According to the daughter, HRD is owned by an "old man" whom she doesn't know. I found this strange, so I went to the website of the Office of the County Clerk – Fictitious Business Name index (God I love the Internet!). According to them, HRD is owned by Chan Sir Lit and Chiang Lai Sheung, and the business under its current owners has been around for at least 20 years (the index doesn't go back any further). If you're reading this now, Chan and Chiang, can you let me know a little more about the history of the restaurant?
Apparently the name, HRD Coffee Shop, was inherited by the new owners. When I asked the daughter what HRD stands for, she said "Human Resources Department". I couldn't tell if she was bullshitting me or if someone joked about the initials once and it just stuck. She sounded serious, though.
Or maybe she's just sick of people asking. Maybe she just calls it what others supposedly do, the Chinese Diner. Nevertheless, Human Resources Department probably isn't far from the truth since it seems to be the local grub stop for cops, garbage men, postal workers, construction workers (gee, they seem to know where all of the cheap grub is), and the occasional geekazoid from across the way at Wired Magazine.
While I still had the daughter on the phone, I asked her what the most popular dishes were, to which she confirmed what I knew all along: the chicken steak and the turkey. The turkey lunch (with tax, $5.31) is what I had the other Saturday. After wasting my time with the chow fun, this is when I realized why people ate here. All this time I've been thinking, "God, this Chinese food sucks. Other than being dirt cheap, what the hell else do people come here for?"
It's the turkey, stupid. Or maybe it's the cheap breakfast, or the cheap hamburgers cooked to order, or maybe a whole bunch of these things. I'm not saying no one comes here to eat Chinese food. But a whole lot of what makes up for HRD's business seems to be that guy who just walked in and ordered a plate of hot cakes and sausages.
My turkey dinner, even on a Saturday, was a joy to eat. Simple, yet satisfying. After ordering at the counter, I waited until the cook slices my turkey, straight from the bird, and piled it onto a plate loaded with mashed potatoes and gravy (which tasted eerily like KFCs, yet less processed – did they steal the recipe?) and sesame flavored steamed broccoli, which was buried underneath the turkey.
I just had water to drink, which was a "help yourself" deal – an empty glass near the register and a jug of water sitting in the soft drink cooler to the right.
The turkey was tender and no knife was necessary. It wasn't juicy moist, but neither was it tough and dry. The broccoli was also very nice and flavorful, and the addition of a steamed, green veggie served the meat and potatoes well.
Sitting there eating the meal, I got a little disappointed that HRD is so off limits to me. Seriously. It's only open in the morning (not far, but too far out of the way for me to walk when catching the bus) and the afternoon until 4, well before I get back to the neighborhood from work. It's open on Saturdays, but those are the days I sleep in and mosey around until well past 2, their closing time. They're closed on Sundays, to the consternation of the fashionably-dressed man and woman I saw walking by just the other day, asking the Korean convenience store owner next door, cleaning the sidewalk, what time they closed.
"They're not open on Sundays."
Seriously, they were like, "Awww"! Totally whining. Something just isn't right in the world when the local Post Office closes at 5 and HRD closes at 4. Even the BoBos agree.
Human Resources Department: I'd like to lodge a complaint.
"Dear Mr. Chan Sir Lit, aka Old Man."