Cafe Society

Ahead by a Nose

It was the smell of the place that got me. That warm, salty, enveloping, fried-pork-and-soy-sauce smell that spun through the small, squared-off dining room like a fog, like smells do in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons -- turning into fingers and tickling the duck or bear or whatever right under the nose, then carrying them along, floating, to the punchline.

Think back to the Chinese restaurants of your youth, wherever it was spent. The Lotus Room, Mott Street, the San Francisco waterfront. Boise -- doesn't matter. Close your eyes and try to remember what Chinese restaurants were like when they were something new and special, when everything was red lacquer, gold dragons and surprises.

They have a smell, those memories, and back then, anyone could have recognized a Chinese restaurant blindfolded -- stepping though the door was like entering an alien world of the senses. A seductive sweet-and-sour mystery odor filled the room like water in an aquarium, with clouds of teriyaki and smoked-duck smells as strange and cloying as opium. At least that's how I remember it.

I'd sometimes wondered whatever happened to that smell, because you don't find it so much in today's slouching strip-mall delivery joints and sterile, high-gloss, new-urbanist Asian bistros. At best, these smell like nothing and floor polish. At worst, like low tide. But then I walked into Crazy Asian Cafe, which smelled just like the Chinese restaurant of my memory, and it was enough to stand me up like a hunting dog on point. I'd come in for dumplings and maybe a Vietnamese coffee, running just ahead of the rain, but ended up staying for a late lunch. When I sat down, I got the last table in the house -- pressed up against the wall, one mote off to the edge of the roiling lunch rush. By the time I was ready to leave, I was the only one there.

Crazy Asian has been holding down this corner of Washington Park for five years. It started out as Stir Crazy until some trademark spat put an end to that, then switched to Crazy Asian -- a name so weird it's like calling a tapas place the Cockeyed Spaniard or an Irish pub Psycho Mick's. But the name wasn't Crazy Asian's only problem. Back in 1999, it must have seemed like a great idea to open an Asian joint in this neighborhood -- full of people with expendable income and adventurous tastes but lacking in good eateries -- because two more showed up just down the street about the same time. The first was Swing Thai, a quick stumble down Alameda Avenue, and then came Thai Basil, known for its blazing curries and Pier 1 decor. While the two Thais have since extended their reach with sister restaurants in the 'burbs and beyond, Crazy Asian has remained a true independent, a single-outpost family-run spot that exists entirely to service its Wash Park neighbors, weekend dog-walkers and anyone else who happens to wander by and wants to get out of the rain.

On a Saturday afternoon, the dozen-odd tables filled and emptied quickly with regulars and friends of the house. There was takeout business being handled by the front door, deliveries (covering only a three-mile radius these days) going out the back, and one waitress on the floor who didn't seem to even touch her pad when she took orders. She nodded, smiled and said "good, good" no matter what anyone asked for, then dodged back into the kitchen to bring them Chinese casseroles, rice plates, and huge bowls of Vietnamese noodles topped with charred chicken and peanuts.

This was my first time at Crazy Asian, but I still got the smile, the nod. I ordered my dumplings, some hot-and-sour san dong soup, skipped the coffee in favor of green tea. "Good, good," said the waitress. Then, running my finger down the long columns of the mutt Chinese/Viet/Thai/Japanese menu (not fusion, but with each national cuisine kept in its proper place, rubbing elbows, but never ingredients, with its geographical neighbors), I picked sweet-and-sour chicken. A coward's choice, sure -- least inventive, most overplayed. But the dish is also a benchmark for any East-leaning galley, and I was curious how the kitchen would handle the worst of round-eye Chinese before I took a swing at some of the more interesting diversions.

The waitress nodded, made a single line on her pad, and said "good, very quick" in what would turn out to be a wild understatement. Less than a minute later, she was back with tea and my soup, a broth that was warming but not spicy, with mandolin-cut carrots, bobbing wood-ear mushrooms, strips of bamboo fresh enough that they hadn't become waterlogged, and bits of tofu crowding the edges of the bowl.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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