Exit the Dragon
Writing audition for a local food publication (2003).
The evening before Thanksgiving was an emotional time at Dragon House. All tables were full on this last night of business. The diners ate well and fondly, asking each other, "Where do we go after this?" Mae Wong was too busy serving familiar patrons and pushing aside her own feelings to answer that one. Her daughters Anna and Jenny probably hadn't visited enough other restaurants to make a recommendation. Her husband Wing bustled unspeaking and invisible in the kitchen, trying to make all the dinner orders and batches of ingredients come out evenly. Considering the unusual run of business, he had the situation well in hand.
Dragon House, a smallish, unassuming Solano Avenue restaurant on the Berkeley-Albany border, had been in business for maybe ten years. We started eating there when our seven-year-old was a baby, partly because the Hong Kong-influenced Szechwan cuisine was tasty and cheap, and partly because it was such a kid-friendly environment. Who needs trendy ambience when your little one can go walkabout, often being invited to join the owners' girls for art projects at a back corner table?
Over countless bowls of three-treasure sizzling rice soup, iron platters of chicken with dry-braised green beans, and plates of red-speckled home-style tofu ingots, we watched the Wongs' community pass through the restaurant. People from all backgrounds came to eat, stayed to chat, and turned their friends into faithful customers. Over black pepper prawns on beds of scallions, stir-fried beef with dramatic plumes of mustard greens, and the occasional Tsing Tao beer that Mae called Chinese apple juice, we watched Anna and Jenny grow from kids to teens, do their homework, and conduct their social lives. It was a family business in action, especially when some of their friends hung out and waited tables with them. At Dragon House, all children were welcome to participate, within reason. Even our little girl adopted the ritual of offering us the plastic jug of fortune cookies at the end of the meal.
But while low prices and a family vibe brought back the repeat customers, the place was rarely more than half full, the rent was going up, and Anna entered college in September. That's when Mae started giving the regulars notice that the end was coming. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Eve, we were all invited to leave our contact info in a guest book by the register. Whether Mae and Wing eventually open a new place or end up working for someone else, their community has every intention of following them. We hope it's soon, too. Our daughter refuses to believe that anyone other than Dragon House can make real sizzling rice soup.