Monday, September 12, 2011

Chinese Restaurant Mysteries

Well we're not talking mysteries in the sense of those you see in movies or books, or the allegedly haunted restrooms at the old Hing Lung in the Park on 18th Ave. in San Francisco or the former Golden Palace location in Los Angeles Chinatown. Rather these are just head scratchers that I can't figure out.

Most notable and longest running is the case of Kai's Restaurant on San Gabriel Blvd. in San Gabriel. I remember stopping by there maybe 15 years ago, picking up a dim sum menu, with the intent of going back to eat there shortly thereafter. But when I went back, the restaurant was closed. And every time I went back it was always closed. But it's not like they went out of business. Over the years, there was a Los Angeles County Health Department grading placard in the window, and the restaurant's grade was changed from time to time. Once I went by and saw a worker inside. I tapped on the window, but he just shook his head. I thought perhaps they opened only late at night when I was seldom in that part of the world, so on the rare occasion when I was around there at night I would drive by, but it was still closed. I posted on the Chowhound board, but there were no responses. The first and only Yelp review merely asks if the restaurant ever opens. It now looks like it truly closed, so I guess I'll never solve the mystery.

More recently I have encountered a strange situation at George's House, a longstanding restaurant on Century Blvd. in Inglewood, just east of LAX. A few years ago they moved into a new location in front of a motel, just east of the 405 freeway, in a neighborhood I would describe as sketchy. There was nothing particularly unusual about this arrangement, and the motel was not unlike a number of low rise motels serving the LAX area. George's House makes terrific fried chicken dumplings, fried nice and crispy on the bottom, and fried almost in a single clump. There are four Yelp reviews of George's House, each one giving one star, but none commenting on the dumplings. But it's a little out of the way, so I don't go there regularly. However, having a hankering for their dumplings I decided to drop by last week. I didn't bother to check the address, just keeping a lookout for the motel and the sign that said George's House. However, as I approached what I thought might be the location I saw an abandoned boarded up motel, no restaurant signage, though there were hand drawn Chinese characters written on the building. Since I was coming from the other side of the street I turned at the corner so I could come back and drive right by the front. Turning my car around on this side street, I saw the abandoned George's House signage lying on the ground. Driving by the restaurant I also saw that the front entrance was gated off. Goodbye George, I thought.

But as I drove by, I did notice a car parked in the driveway near the entrance to the motel, so I turned into the driveway and the parking lot. There was a hand drawn sign pointing to the "4687 W. Century Blvd. mail room" so there were additional signs of life. Driving to the corner of the parking lot, while every motel room was heavily boarded up, what appeared to be the back door of the restaurant was open. Walking in, the restaurant indeed was open, though there were no customers inside. The man at the counter started speaking to me in Chinese, but I told him I didn't understand. I asked for two orders of fried chicken dumplings, and within a few minutes my food was ready.

My curiosity was really raised. How can this restaurant stay in business being attached to an empty motel (a sign on the motel's night window says "we cannot legally rent rooms"), with no exterior signage, and a blocked off front entrance? And why did the guy start speaking to me in Chinese, since in this part of town any Asian walking off the street (which would seemingly be an infrequent event) could just as well be Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese? Since the proprietor didn't appear to speak much English I really couldn't chat him up. I did notice Chinese writing on the blackboard on the wall, rather odd for a Chinese restaurant not in someplace like Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley. I did ask him if they were open every day, and he said yes, which only added to the mystery.

Now I do have a plausible explanation of what might be going on. There are Chinese restaurants whose primary source of business is visiting Chinese tour groups. While we've all seen tour groups dining at established Chinese restaurants, I'm talking about Chinese restaurants that have few customers aside from Chinese tourists. We saw this ourselves in the remote town of Golden, British Columbia, which served authentic Chinese food in the middle of nowhere, and which actually closes down once tourist season is over. There was a Chinese restaurant of this ilk near LAX, Capri Garden in what was the Howard Johnson Hotel on Airport Blvd. and Manchester. From what I could tell the Howard Johnson was a full service operation for Taiwanese tourists--most of the hotel guests were Taiwanese tourists and the restaurant served authentic Chinese food. However the hotel was recently sold and remodeled, and no longer has a restaurant. Perhaps George's House has filled this void.

No comments:

Post a Comment