September 5, 2002

China Star

You will find the phone number on the menu, which is affixed with little black magnets to the refrigerator door. I have never bothered to memorize it. It has proved easier, each time, to walk the five paces from my desk to the refrigerator, temporarily memorize the number, and return to the desk and dial. Today, two days from the day I move, I regret this small repeated laziness. If I could turn back the clock, I would memorize the number on the first day and save myself the walk to the refrigerator and back, performed several times a week for two years.

When you call the number, the woman who answers, whose name I still don’t know, will say, “China Star, can I help you?” only her accent will make this sound something like Chhnahsta kunnaheyuh. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve dialed the right number. Chhnahsta kunnaheyuh confirms this. Wait for her to say it, then say, “I’d like to place an order to pick up. Broccoli and tofu. Small.”

I realize now that after the first few months I didn’t need to say “small,” since by that point the woman had learned my voice and learned too that I never ordered anything but broccoli and tofu, small. Indeed, I probably could have left out the bit about wanting to place an order and instead just said, “Broccoli and tofu, small,” or even, “Broccoli and tofu.”

Regrets.

Wait at least ten minutes before heading over, to avoid having to stand too long in that cramped little space (China Star is take-out only).

Broccoli and tofu costs $2.75. I get it fried, since the steamed version has no flavor. If you decide to try it steamed, be prepared to pay an extra quarter. I don’t know why the plainer, simpler version is more expensive, but I figure it’s the same reason that it costs more for an unlisted phone number.

Your order should be ready when you arrive. However, sometimes you will have to wait a few minutes while the woman deals with other customers. A total of three times she’s forgotten to relay my order to the cook. I’ve never shown any anger about this, and neither should you. The poor woman works seven days a week, twelve hours a day (thirteen on Friday and Saturday), and must be forgiven the occasional oversight.

We’ve now arrived at the difficult part, the part about the condiments and the fork. If you’re like me, you don’t use those condiments, nor would you dream of eating with a plastic fork when you own nice metal forks that can be washed and reused. The China Star woman includes a fork and a half dozen condiment packages in every order. I don’t know how many orders she fills each day, but it must be in the high hundreds, if not thousands. And each time the same motions: fork in, condiments in, close bag.

It took several months to get her to stop giving me these things. Again and again I asked her to take back the fork and condiments, and each time she responded with a confused and weary look before opening the bag. I tried to make it into a kind of joke, a friendly jesting: “Ha, you didn’t remember this time.” Part of the problem was that she doesn’t understand the word condiments, so I had to be excruciatingly specific: “Please, no soy sauce or duck sauce or hot sauce or fork or anything.” I would accompany this with a frantic hand gesture. The turning point came when I hit on the phrase, “Just the food, please.” Somehow this clarified things for her.

A new thought: You could mention me whenever you request no extras (she doesn’t understand the word extras either; I tried), perhaps by saying something like, “Just the food, please – like that guy” (she doesn’t know my name). Here it would help if you only ordered broccoli and tofu, for that is how she must think of me, as the broccoli and tofu guy. The combination of the two things, the broccoli and tofu and “just the food,” would surely click in her head and you’d be set.

Back at home remove both containers from the bag and uncover the dish. Allow the food to “breathe” (I really do think of it this way) about five minutes. The longer you wait, the more the sauce congeals and (I swear this is true) sweetens. As with many of life’s true pleasures, it’s best to wait for a time before indulging.