1636 W Redondo Beach Blvd
Gardena, CA 90247
It's been a long time since I read The Joy Luck Club, but every time we mobilize the entire Delicious Family for Chinese food with a heavy emphasis on seafood, I can't help but think about the book. To be quite honest, I don't even remember the story all that well because 1) it was a long time ago and 2) I read it in fits and starts in the car, in the hotel room, by the pool, on a cross-country drive from Ohio to LA with my Mom.
The memory of the book for me has absolutely nothing to do with getting in touch with my Asian heritage (in case you haven't noticed, aside from using chopsticks to eat everything simply because they're more precise and eating kimchee, I try to stay as far away as possible from "Asian" as possible), what it's like to be an Asian-American female who is named either "Susan" nor "Grace," or understanding the universal relationship between a mother and daughter.
It has everything to do with...crab. My family has an odd fascination with crab, which also has almost no thematic nor associative parallels to The Joy Luck Club other than, just simply, crab.
(Get ready, here comes a side story from the Delicious childhood that might serve to explain why I am, you know, this way.)
When my sisters and I were little, my family went out to eat in restaurants more often than what I would think today would be "normal" for a famly with three children all under the age of eight. It was particularly unusual because of our location, our ethnicity, and our family structure. Please forgive the gross regional, gender, and ethnographic stereotyping I am about to do.
We lived first in Texas, then in the Midwest, and yes, even though I was born in the Midwest and we lived in Texas for a significant portion of my lifetime, I have adopted LA's false impression that in the Midwest and The Republican of Texas, families gather around an enormous dinner table altogether every night for dinner. Our being Asian would have have added additional weight to our dining at home as opposed to out in restaurants: 1) we couldn't eat decent Asian food in the few "Oriental" restaurants in the locales in which we resided and 2) in Asian cultures, family structures are built such that Moms stay at home all day washing rice, making dumplings, and squatting on the kitchen floor wearing yellow rubber dishwashing gloves, stuffing Napa cabbage leaves with spices for kimchee.
Please. My Mom did that bare-handed.
I thought we were special because we ate out so much. Maybe Dad loved Mom, but didn't love her cooking. Maybe my young-at-the-time parents were just "hip" to dining out. Maybe our family was of a privileged class that could afford to dine out regularly. But how could you not love Mom's galbee and kimchee? What is "hip" about People's Buffet which is, for those who are unfamiliar with the dining options in San Antonio in the early '80s, is the equivalent of Hometown Buffet? And when was Red Lobster ever considered a "bourgie" dining destination?!?!
Red Fucking Lobster. For the seafood fucking lover in you.
Dining out was all part of Dad's master parenting strategy, which included such tactics as having us read What They Don't You at Harvard Business School when we were in elementary school, memorizing the Rule of 72, naming our dog "Buffy" so that we wouldn't have the Korean immigrant pronunciation problem of substituting "P" for "F," and of course, taking us out to eat in nice restaurants (like Red Lobster!!1!) so we would learn how to use forks and knives instead of our hands, you know, like the little neanderthal-ette Koreans we were.
Of course, Dad’s plan of refinement has completely backfired, since an introduction to crab back then means that Mom and my sisters shamelessly dive head first into a plate of crab in garlic sauce during a birthday/Chinese New Year lunch at Sea Empress.
Oh, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Every year about this time, we “do the family Chinese thing” because we celebrate Chinese New Year and Dad’s and brother-in-law’s birthdays. Last year, apparently our pan-Asian family was also Creole because we celebrated Mardi Gras, but that’s another story. We ended up at The Sea Empress in the South Bay because it happens to be almostequidistant from all the various members of our Delicious family, some of whom are on the Westside, some of whom are in the South Bay, and others who have fled to Orange County.
Sea Empress is no different from any other seafood-heavy Chinese restaurant. When we walked in, the dining room was a sea of glossy, bobbing black heads. I made my way through the steeplchase of tables, chairs that were pushed away from the table unnecessarily far by Dads who had overindulged, strollers, over-sized handbags on the floor, all the while dodging servers who were hurling themselves through the same maze with plates precariously balanced along the lengths of their arms. Somehow, I made it to the private room without nary a scratch nor spill.
Lunch was the usual - a set course menu with the requisite substitutions to accommodate the persnickety preferences of each of our family members. Dad has taken a liking to Chicken in Lettuce Cups. I filled an enormous lettuce leaf bowl with a tiny spoonful of the filling and tried to dissociate the chicken lettuce "taco" in my mind from PF Chang's and The Cheesecake Factory. I washed it down with Soup that my sister's mother-in-law (does that make her my mother-in-law, too?) doused with red vinegar, of which I am now a fan.
The servers were bringing dishes out in a shiny parade. One or two dishes would hit the lazy Susan, at the same time one or two half empty dishes would be mid-air to be whisked away when a shout of "Togo!" would come from Mom or the Mother-in-Law. I peered suspiciously at what looked like mushrooms then holy shiitake, realized it was really just camouflage for wiggly sea creatures that I ignored with the excuse that Sea Cucumbers are Mom's favorite. Duck isn't something I would ever order on my own, but given that it eventually made its way to me on its wobbly spin on the Lazy Susan, I took the least meaty piece I could identify, the proceeded to peel away the dark, crisp skin, leaving flesh and bones on the plate untouched. I also plucked the skins from everyone else's plates, which had been left as waste on the edge of the plates. I dragged every greasy piece through a tiny dish of sambal.
When the Crab in Garlic Sauce came to the table, everyone forgot the Sweet and Sour Beef that was ridiculously tender, but a little too sweet. There was a moment of quiet, like the calm before the storm. I held my breath, bracing myself for the utter destruction that was about to ensue. It’s a gloriously gory sight to behold – three beautiful women and their complete and utter disregard for dining decorum. Mom and my sisters became nothing but a blur. Their heads were bent over their plates, long slender fingers, a genetic characteristic of Mom’s side of the family, tearing delicate white shards of crabment from crustacean shell so lightning fast that their speed and agility would put a court reporter to shame. All that was left in each of their wakes was a growing pile of hollow pieces of shell that have been sucked completely dry of any sea life, let alone glossy garlic sauce.
I watched, as I always do, in utter amazement.
It sounds like I hadn't eaten much by the time we were halfway through the courses, but for some reason, when the whole steamed fish arrived, I felt like I had ballooned like Violet Beauregarde. The fish looked and smelled delicicious. The tiny flake of ivory white flesh I tried tasted delicious, too. Thankfully, I have an allergy of convenience to shrimp, so I was able to avoid the Walnut Shrimp, drowning in sweetened mayonnaise.
When Fried Rice came to the table, I could hardly breathe. We should have sent it straight back to the kitchen to have wrapped to go, but the enormous platter, mounded with a ivory grains and flecked with little bits of green and red sat ominously in front of the family. Someone was slowly spinning the Lazy Susan, but no one was making a move to serve themselves. I watched it makes its way around the table, and was relieved when it passed me by.
Thankfully, Fried Rice was the end of the feast, though my brother-in-law ordered his favorite beef, egg, and rice dish with a Chinese name that I shan't attempt to spell out for fear of butchering into something that might be mistakenly translated into "Baby Horse Sauteed in Swamp Slime." It wasn't part of the menu, and his mother (The Mother-in-Law") was almost horrified that he would order a dish akin to ordering Tuna Noodle Casserole at Spago, but he proclaimed his birthday.
** a year ago today, a roll by any other name would still taste like sushi **
** two years ago today, empanada's place makes hot pockets **