I push through the restaurant door seeking noodle nirvana, but what I get is so much more. It is late afternoon – too late for the lunch crowd and too early for the dinner crowd – so the restaurant is empty, except for the three faces at a table looking up at me. As I stroll toward the counter, a woman, probably in her 50s, maybe early 60s, jumps out of her seat to join me, leaving her laptop computer, Chinese language newspapers and two male cohorts behind.
I pick up a menu, but the woman bats it away. “I’ve got a Chinese menu for you,” she says. I tell her I can’t read Chinese, but she says it’s got English, too. So I scan the menu and see what I’ve been lusting after: wonton noodle soup. Cool. Since moving to Arizona nearly five years ago, I’ve been seeking a Chinese restaurant with good noodles. But every time I’ve ordered it, I’ve been disappointed. The broth is either bland, or the noodles lacked the right flavor. Back home, the best Chinese restaurants are grungy hole-in-the-walls, and this one has the look and feel. “I’m from San Francisco,” I tell the woman. “And I miss eating good wonton mein.” She replies: “If you’re from San Francisco, you’ll love our food.”
She’s spunky, full of energy. I like her. And I want to believe her. So I order two bowls of wonton noodle soup, and one order of crispy chow mein and some jook for good measure. “Are you going to be able to eat all this?” Yup, I say. Do you want that crispy bread to go with the jook? Yes. Do you want this order to go? Yes. One of the men, wearing an apron, hurries into the kitchen to prepare my meals. After paying, I turn to join Miiko, who is parked at a corner table, when the woman says, “You should eat the wonton noodle soup here.” It wasn’t a question. It was practically a demand. A bit bizarre. I look at Miiko. She looks at me. Moment of truth… and I say OK.
The woman is breathless as she tells us about the upcoming Miss Phoenix Chinese beauty pageant. She whips out a few Chinese newspapers with ballots on them and urges us to vote. “Pick your favorite,” she says. “And you can win a prize.” So I scan the pretty faces and the contestants are either in four-year universities or community colleges. I decide to vote for the community college student because I figure she needs the prize money more, but Miiko wants to pick the contestant who’s the dancer. Fine with me. So we both sign our ballots, choosing the dancer. The woman, a pageant organizer, convinces us to buy two tickets to the July 4th pageant.
The third person in the restaurant – a man probably in his 50s – brings our wonton noodle soup. The woman asks if I want hot sauce. Sure, I say, as I go to grab the one from our table, but she says no. That’s not the good one. And gives me another one from another table. The only difference I see is the “good one” is darker.
The pair sit at the table next to us, and we gab as we eat – about the Chinese American population in Arizona, and all the community work they are involved in, from beauty pageants to raising funds for senior housing. We discuss our life histories, which prompts the man to fetch pictures of his wife and children. We look and ask questions. A good looking bunch.
“You should be a judge in the pageant,” the man offers. For a second, I don’t know what to say. “We have enough judges already,” the woman says, taking the offer back. Whew. Good. The man nods to me and says, “Next year then.” And later he adds: “We need more of your generation to start taking over.” I know what he means. And I nod. The younger generation needs to step up to the plate and do more community work.
Overall, the wonton noodle soup was heavenly. Absolutely made to perfection. I enjoyed it. And both Miiko and I enjoyed their company and conversation. As we parted, the woman pointed to the man and said to me, “Uncle.” Then she pointed to herself, “You can call me your auntie.” I smiled and shook their hands. And promised to eat there often.
We left the restaurant feeling like we just visited with family – a long-lost auntie and uncle who fed us some delicious home cooking – and it felt good.