Sunday, May 22, 2016

Table for One : Field trip to Chinatown

i had the afternoon to myself and i was in the mood for a bit of adventure.  i'd spent the morning with mom and needed to indulge myself in a lovely time alone. somewhere interesting, if only to me. i was dressed for just about anything, which usually would inspire a stroll out of the zone, perhaps into memorial for pork belly at bramble or west U has that cuban place i've never tried. but being noon on friday, a city trip was immediately nixed. i mean, i want adventure, but i don't do friday commuter traffic. i'm a spoiled housewife.  i don't do inconvenience.

i was thinking chinatown.  a reliable go-to for me, so not exactly an adventure, but i was getting hungry and kept picturing myself at the white-clothed table at szechuan house, digging into a bowl of mapo tofu with a plastic chinese spoon.

A word about mapo tofu:  i crave it.  there are times i have to have it.  i am ever on the quest for the most tingly, tasty, spicy-soft mapo tofu on the planet, specifically radared-in on places within 10-20 miles from my house. i'm lucky to live close to a real chinatown, but one of my favorite mapo places is nestled in suburbia, right in my neighborhood.  like i said, i'm lucky.

the best thing about mapo is the tingly spiciness of the szechuan peppercorn. and nothing high-fives that peppercorn flavor in your mouth better than ice cold beer. it's like hot wings. i mean they're good, but the beer, that's what makes them great. chinatown is crammed with tons of dive-spot cafes, but most don't serve beer--or any alcohol. and herein lies a bit of adventure -- bring your own beer to lunch.  it's kinda like free beer, at least it feels kinda like it.

I mentally gauged my adventure capacity and what kind of experience would satisfy the thirst for self-celebration that i hankered for, i knew it was going to involve szechuan in some capacity.
Back to  Mala? (the Houstonian's darling of the mapo, consistently nabbing their top slot for best szechuan, which i was level-8 excited to try.  and was disappointed like a child when it wasn't even tasty, let alone tingly spicy) i want to give it another chance, but i hesitate. it's pricey and full of white people. A few other options skirted through my mind, all clustered in chinatown, somewhere.  i tossed two cold beers and a koozie into my purse, headed for the beltway and figured i'd make up my mind when i turned onto Bellaire  (aka: chinatown blvd).

I live in a super-diverse area.  i have neighbors from bangladesh, hong kong, nigeria--everywhere.  so i know about stereotypes.  i know about PC..  i thought i'd drive around the shopping centers and if something interesting appealed to me, i'd park and go in.
chinatown was a mass of traffic. no biggie.  i'm on an adventure, i guess a teeny bit of inconvenience can be tolerated. but yall: chinese people can't drive.  it's a stereotype, but sister let me tell you, it's rooted in real life.  parking lots in chinatown are where road rage was born.  cars parked in handicap ramps.  not the space --the ramp next to the space.  every backing out and pulling in was an act of intricate and slowly considered movement.  i think the same person that teaches  Tai Chi teaches the parking class.  i sat behind an old buick with it's blinker on for over three minutes.  three minutes.  it was just sitting there.  with it's blinker on. i don't think the guy ever saw me, even when i backed up to get the hell out of the isle, as he was sitting in right in the middle of it.

I ditched exploring and aligned all my energy into finding somewhere --anywhere-- to park . by now, hunger was overtaking my sense of adventure and the whole parking lot fiascos were killing my happy.  just as i was considering other options, a spot opened near me and i snagged it. i looked around to what was close:  szechuan house it is.  white table cloths, here i come.

man the place was packed.  i loved the energy.  four waitresses orchestrated the room with eye gestures and quick words -- "you one?" she shouted to me from across the room, i smile and headshake yes, hold up one finger.   "okay here!"  another she shouts & points to a seat in the left corner of a 4-top, facing the kitchen. she sets down a menu and catches my eye with a smile. my happy is resurged. i've got a big table and a prime spot to watch food come out of the kitchen.  i've been here a few times--the mapo is really good and they serve lunch portion, which is unusual, plus it's about six bucks with soup and rice, so it's a no-brainer.  (remember, i brought my beer from home!)

 i love the symphony of a busy chinese restaurant, the clanging of chop sticks on ceramic bowls and the low, chopped language broken up by laughter.  Ladies, business men, families and couples reach across round tables to pick up noodles, or separate fish from their garlicky sauce. there's a communal element to chinese eating---i think it's the round tables.

 I ordered, then got up to fill my ceramic bowl with steamy soup from the self-serve cauldron at the front of room.  the slightly thickened hot and sour soup had strips of soft tofu and long twines of chinese mushroom.  the broth was tangy and rich. i popped my beer and savored the moment.  i love going to lunch alone.

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