I love Chinese food. Whenever I suggest going to a Chinese restaurant with a friend, if they say, "No, I had Chinese food last week," I often tend to answer, "You know what they call Chinese food in Beijing? 'Food.' They have Chinese food three times a day in China, every day."
There's a Chinese restaurant near me in West L.A. that I like, Hop Li Seafood. There's another Hop Li somewhat near, around the Westide Pavillion on Pico, and the food is comparably good at both places. (There are two others, but much farther.) Not surprisingly, I prefer the one that I can walk tobut unfortunately a lot of my friends prefer the other. That's because, although the food is almost the same, the service at the one near me -- hmm, how shall I put this? Sucks eggs.
It's not that they're the kind of rude, obnoxious "bad service" you associate with the term. It's actually sort of charming how bad it is, since they screw up on really basic, completely easy stuff. All the time. It's almost become their signature. Besides, the waiters are actually reasonably pleasant. Other friends alas don't find it as adorable as I do (and in fairness, I don't find it especially adorable, but it's more like cuddling the idiot child closer because he needs it more).
I went to the walking-distance Hop Li last night with my friend Myles Berkowitz (his wife and kid were out of town), and gave him the traditional, caveat warning first. "The service here is really bad." He tossed it aside, certain I was exaggerating. "No place is perfect," he said. I held my breath -- not that the service would be lousy yet again, but that it wouldn't be, and I'd be accused of having no judgment. Happily, it lived down to my advance billing.
When we sat down, I asked him, "Okay, so what's missing at the table?" He looked around, and then scrunched his eyes. "There's no soy sauce." Bingo! Hop Li is the only Chinese restaurant I've been to that you have to ask for soy sauce. Then the waiter came and took our order. As he was leaving, before he got out of earshot, I called out and caught his attention. "And could we have some water...!"
The dishes didn't arrive even close to one another, though in fairness that seems pretty standard at most Chinese restaurants. But as the waiter walked away, before he disappeared into the mist, I got his attention -- "And could we please have some...rice!"
You have to admit, there's something unique about a Chinese restaurant where you have to ask for rice, soy sauce and water. Not just occasionally, but every -- single -- time. (That's why I knew to jump in and ask before the waiting had escaped.)
Later in the meal, Myles -- who was on his best behavior, not always the norm -- started to get a bit antsy. Because he was the guest and didn't know the protocol, it turned out that he didn't know how long he should wait before tracking down a waiter. He was shifting around in his seat and eventually his frustration got the better of him. At last, he flagged one down from afar. "Could I have some more water?" he asked.
It's not a big deal, I know. None of it is. But that's why I say I find their ineptness to have such charm. The ability to make good food definitely trumps knowing to coming around with water. But water, rice, soy sauce, serving your food during mealtime, bringing condiments before you've finished eating, and other such basics, shouldn't be hard to master.
The food was very tasty (Myles even thought he'd start doing takeout from them, rather than his regular delivery place), it was full, and most of the clientele was Chinese, always a good sign in a Chinese restaurant.
It's just that there's this one, little quirk they can't get past.
Oh, when Myles called them this afternoon to ask about their delivery service, he was told, "No, no, no. No delivery."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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