4

Remember Yen?

He's just a kid, maybe ten years old, with very new white sneakers that don't quite reach the floor and martinet parents like something out of Dickens or the grayer volumes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Society types with ramrod postures and delicate, picky little hands. They're older, but definitely not grandparents. Just people who waited to breed until their careers were stable, their portfolios strong, perhaps until their CPA told them that what they really needed was a two-legged tax writeoff.

The kid's kicking his chair. Banging it softly with his heels until the parents -- who haven't otherwise said a word -- tell him to knock it off, sit still, quit fussing. They're sitting two tables away from me at Little Ollie's Asian Cafe, in the section that's a wraparound patio on brighter, warmer days.

I hadn't noticed the kid at first because I was watching the bar, and a bartender brutalizing a martini. He'd shoveled ice into a warm shaker when he should have given the can a twist in the ice bin first to cool it, shot his liquor and then racked the steel shaker back and forth in his big hands like he was mad at it, the ice crashing, splintering, melting faster for all the abuse and thinning out the booze. Then, rather than pouring immediately, he'd set the shaker aside, gone and found a glass, assembled a two-olive garnish and put it in the glass before adding the hard stuff. But the olives added volume, so he had to short-pour, and there was liquor left in the shaker. This he dumped in the sink.

Info

Little Ollie's Asian Cafe

2364 East Third Avenue, 303-316-8888. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4:30 p.m.-close daily

Spring roll: $1.50
Chinese dumplings: $4.95
Crab rangoons: $4.95
Shrimp tempura: $7.95
Barbecue spare ribs: $7.95
Chicken corn egg drop soup: $2
Salt-and-pepper shrimp: $14.95
Crispy sea bass: $19.95
Yushan chicken: $10.95
Singapore rice noodles: $10.95

When a customer at the bar asked if he'd put in any vermouth, the bartender gave a big, dumb smile and said no. "Best martini in town, ladies," he announced, full of blossoming, dim-witted and totally misplaced arrogance. "Just gin and vodka, nothing else."

I wanted to trip him as he went past me. I wanted to knock that abomination out of his hands, because he hadn't made a martini. He'd made a short gin and a short vodka, watered down and mixed up in one glass, then called it a martini. But at this point -- my final working meal at Little Ollie's and probably my last here for a good, long time -- I thought that drink was fairly indicative of Ollie's as a whole: lots of bluff and bluster that fail to disguise its blandness. My eyes followed the bartender as he headed for a table carrying that bastard's brew high like a champ, and that's when I saw the kid. His parents. I saw him, and I...

...I'm nine, back in Rochester, New York, at Ng's Chinese Restaurant with my own parents. Ng's is not fancy, maybe two steps up from middle-American strip-mall Asian, but we're all dressed up anyway. My dad is in a jacket. My mom smells like the perfume she always wears when we go out -- like roses and vanilla. My little brother is six years old, with a giant Pac-Man face and a smile so wide it looks like it opens on a hinge and the top of his head could fall back any second. Me, I'm wearing my favorite button-down shirt: bright blue, with an over-large collar and black buttons. (It's the early '80s, so cut me some slack.)

The menus are big, covered with red leather and full of words I've never seen, foods I've never heard of. Everything is so weird, so alien, so exotic. When the waiter comes, I order egg drop soup because I've seen someone ask for it in a movie, and shrimp with lobster sauce because it sounds so elegant when I say it. My mom looks at my dad, raises an eyebrow and says to me, "Are you sure that's what you want? Are you going to be able to eat that?"

Back at Little Ollie's, I keep watching the kid. When the waiter comes, the parents order first, then the kid asks for crab rangoons and something I can't hear. The mother shakes her head. "Are you sure that's what you want?" his father asks. "Are you really going to eat that?" The kid nods, bobbing up and down in his chair.

The father looks up at the waiter with an expression on his face like he doesn't feel comfortable ever looking up at anybody. "Bring him the crab things and sesame chicken. He'll eat that."

The kid slumps but doesn't argue. The father checks his watch. The family descends back into silence.

No one gets to tell me what to eat anymore, so when my waiter comes, I order spring rolls, barbecued spare ribs and crispy sea bass. The waiter nods, scratches at his pad. "That fish comes whole," he says. "With the head and tail. Is that all right?" The subtext -- Are you sure that's what you want? -- is in my mother's voice.

"Yes," I say. "That's fine."

At Ng's, the plates came under silver domes that puffed steam when they were lifted up. I didn't like the egg drop soup -- it tasted like cream of chicken with worms of poached egg white -- but I drank every drop, because I figured not liking it meant there was something wrong with me, not the kitchen. I thought I would learn to love this very strange stuff, and I was right. I did learn to love egg drop soup. But not Ollie's egg drop soup with corn and chicken, which tasted like nothing so much as textured water. And these days, I'm smart enough to know who to blame.

I remember Ng's so fondly -- with such innocent, stupid joy -- because it was my introduction to a world of food and adventure that I'd never imagined existed. It could've been the worst restaurant in the Western Hemisphere and I wouldn't have known, because everything I tried there was a first. I would've eaten anything brought to me under one of those shining domes. I would have eaten the flower out of the vase on the table and thought it foreign ambrosia.

Now, at Ollie's, I eat like a critic -- dismissing many dishes because I've had them better, finer elsewhere. I'm spoiled by experience and excess. But that kid, two tables and twenty years distant, is not. His crab rangoons come and he tucks in with gusto -- pulling them apart with his fingers, crunching the ends, poking at the cream-cheese-and-crab filling. I'd tried those same rangoons earlier, and they'd tasted just like the versions at a hundred Chinese takeout places from New York to San Francisco -- no better, no worse. But to the kid, they're perfect. Even their name -- rangoon -- must feel weird and wonderful on his tongue, and he dips them in everything available while his parents try to restrain his enthusiasm and then, finally, ignore it.

My waiter brings three square ceramic bowls filled with duck sauce, hot mustard and gingered soy and arranges them in a careful diagonal line on the table, then sets down a large plate holding my spring rolls and ribs. It's a beautiful presentation. I like the way the plain white plates look on the table, the way the simple tables and chairs look in Little Ollie's cozy, modern dining room with its blond wood and metal screens. The place I like, and always have. The food I don't, and maybe never will. The spring rolls in front of me are passable, but, like the rangoons, old hat. And the ribs are terrible. They're more bone than meat, and what meat there is is stringy, tough and burnt, touched with a sauce that exists only for color, with no attempt at flavor.

A few days before, I'd come here on a Saturday night with Laura, my friend Brian and his better half. We'd ordered a lot and been impressed by little. A double order of shrimp tempura brought a plate of lovely, pale-gold, batter-wrapped thumbs filled with mush, like a wad of lukewarm oatmeal with a shrimp in the middle. Sesame chicken, that benchmark of faux Asian-American lowest-common-denominator fusion, was a maple-candy nightmare, and the salt-and-pepper shrimp tasted like neither -- although they did taste like shrimp, at least. Trouble was, they'd been cooked in a batter with no flavor at all and topped with a rough, dry salsa of diced jalapeños, bell peppers and red onion.

The Singapore rice noodles -- a big tangle of tender, thin rice noodles that looked like a nest built by a large bird living in an angel-hair-pasta factory -- tasted like good ramen, sans broth. Twisted among the strands were overpowering bits of fried white onions and limp stalks of tasteless green, shreds of tough pork, shrimp, big chunks of chicken and long sticks of julienned carrots. Brian snapped up a big load of noodles with his chopsticks, giving it that expert half-twist of the wrist I've never been able to master, and complained, "This tastes like nothing. Noodles. Chicken. Onion. Could be anything."

And he was mostly right. Deep down, I sensed five-spice powder, a gentle sweetness that could've been coconut milk, a whisper of seasoning that would never have the muscle to bring the whole plate together. More than anything, the noodles tasted unfinished, as though some elemental step in their construction had been forgotten or ignored.

The Yushan chicken that followed was better but still weak, on par with a microwaved bowl of Weight Watchers stir-fry. But both the Chinese dumplings, steamed, and the Chinese dumplings, pan-fried, were excellent, with the fried being just a little better. We dipped them in gingered soy sauce and made a mess of the table. We drank cold Tsing Tao beer. And when we finally finished, around eight, every table was full and there was a half-hour wait at the door. We held our tongues until we were outside, then marveled aloud at how food like that could draw such crowds.

"Don't they know better?" Brian asked while we walked away, searching for my little car in the sea of SUVs.

No, I don't think they do. Eating Chinese food -- especially bland, risk-free Americanized Chinese food -- is like picking up smoking or getting a taste for cheap beer. It's a gateway drug, the kind of thing that, for some people, leads to greater and greater experimentation and a yen for terrible excess, but for others leads to nothing at all. The egg drop soup and shrimp with lobster sauce at Ng's were my gateway, my first taste of a new world, and I liked it. I liked it a lot. I probably liked it a little too much, which is why I now eat pigs' ears and Peruvian mountain potato but can no longer squeeze a thrill out of spring rolls and lo mein. Which is why I can sit in front of a platter of sea bass -- the decapitated head staring up at me with blind, baked eyes -- and think only that the pea-and-carrot-studded sweet-and-sour sauce that drenches it is an insult to an otherwise very nicely done piece of fish. I peel long slabs of flesh from the bone, trying to wipe off as much of the cotton-candy ketchup gravy as I can and swirl it in the gingered soy still left from my appetizers.

I glance up, and the kid is staring wide-eyed at the fish head on my plate. He's made a good dent in his sesame chicken, but right now he's fascinated by my fish. I fight the urge to shove my fist into the empty head and make it talk like a puppet, and instead stick a fork into the overdone cheek meat and eat a shred -- all I can get -- while the kid's looking. I hope it intrigues him. I hope he remembers Little Ollie's the way I remember Ng's.

As I leave, the kid's parents are taking his chopsticks away. They're hissing at him to calm down, eat with a fork, be civilized.

But that's okay. He'll get past it. I have a feeling that twenty years from now, I'll be seeing that kid out again. I just hope it's somewhere more interesting than this.

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