I'm a little slow today. I just switched to Sanka. So...have a heart?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Fu ManChu

Julie and I were bored.

And I'm getting fed-up with beating down the same path over, and over again. I'm also getting fed-up with staring at the four walls of my recently listed fantastic home. Which I am about to sell, in exchange for something markedly less fabulous, but which will allow me to stumble to and from bars, and as things seem to be going, to do my drinking...alone.

But I digress.

My travels through the undiscovered pockets of Miami and the Beach, have made me aware that there's a lot out there. Some of it is still a well-kept secret, spoken about in hushed tones by Locals, for fear that their little gems, like the Sandwicherie, will be discovered and mobbed. And some of it is simply not spoken of because it does not bear repeating.

On Seventy First Street, is Fu ManChu. I have pangs of guilt writing this blog, because I truly do want Miami's landmarks to succeed in this city without a tangible past. Once anything hits 30-years-old in Miami, it is promptly torn down and replaced with another structure, with as much character and history as a wad of chewed Wrigley's Spearmint gum.

Fu ManChu is an old-school Chinese Restaurant. I noticed it, because of its intricate Pagoda-Style Neon Lights, and unmistakable sign.

Amidst the homeless' seeping bandages, and bewildered Eastern European Tourists, Fu ManChu is a beacon to eras bygone, when it must have bustled on Christmas and Easter, the voices of long deceased Jews blending into an indecipherable roar; crinoline petticoats rustled, bright red lipstick shone, fur stoles flowed, thick cigarette smoke curled up to the ceiling and fedoras were donned and doffed. This place had exotic cuisine featuring pineapple and marischino cherries. For over 70 years, this has been a Miami Beach Landmark. And thusly, I had to go.

I must admit, I did not go with high expectations. I thought I would walk into a shopworn restaurant that had survived seven decades, by virtue of its solid, if uninspiring American-Chinese food.

Julie and I should have known to turn and flee when we entered the cavernous space to behold not. a. single. customer.

I'm very keen to absence of clientele. If I walk into a restaurant where no one is eating, it's usually a bad sign. Worse still, if it's 8:15 on a Saturday night, in a city where the median dining hour is 9:30 p.m.

Still, dazzled by the preserved murals on the wall, and the Miami-Modern floating second story, jutting like an island over the main dining room, supported by Tiki Bamboo posts, I gave the place the benefit of the doubt. Clue number two was the fact that this architectural feature of a second story was roped off with dingy red ropes on both of the worn staircases leading up to it. In retrospect, I wonder if it could still support the weight of a full house.

Red bentwood chairs featured the yellow names of the Miami Beach Social Scene from the time when my parents had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and Leslie Gore had top Ten Hits on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. A bank of booths were upholstered in red vinyl, bore the scars, patches and fades of 50 years. And the two employees were cheerful, although ancient.

Julie and I took our place, and gaped at the murals on the wall. I was entranced by a tromphe l'oiel gong painted on luan, and screwed into the far wall God-knows how many years ago.

Our creaky and adorably decrepit waiter brought us a bowl of Chinese noodles and tea, a northern ritual virtually unknown in Miami Chinese food. The noodles were the skinny ones, not the broad noodles best eaten with lots of mustard and duck sauce.

Using the circumspect plastic spoon jammed in the mustard ramekin, and observing our lack of plates, I ladled the weak mustard onto a corner of the noodle bowl. We shoveled the noodles into our mouths like so many logs into a locomotive's firebox. The mustard, as we assumed, was not spicy enough. Unbeknownst to us, "not _____ enough" would become the theme of the restaurant. It wasn't crowded enough to start with. The mustard wasn't spicy enough...

I noted with some chagrin that the Sweet n' Low that I dumped into my tea was damp...and caked. "Not dry enough."

The prices on the menu were low. In retrospect...too low. But we thought we had made a good find. A cheap, authentic northern Chinese restaurant...where there was never going to be a wait for a table.

Julie ordered the MuShu Chicken, because she really wanted scallion pancakes, but, alas, like so much delicious Chinese food, these were not to be had in Miami. Flour pancakes would have to do. I ordered something called Spicy Szechwan Scallion Beef. How could they possibly screw up beef, right? It would come in thin strips, wok-fried until well done, crispy on the outside, and chewy on the inside. Right? No big chunks. Right? And whatever sauce covered the beef would be alternately sweet, salty and spicy. Right? And not taste like poop...right?

(With a thick Lawn'Giiiland Accent) "WROOOOOOOOOOANGUH!"

After we ordered, Julie whispered, "I hope the kitchen's not too busy!" We snickered, as we are wont to do.

Our snickering was interrupted by a sound I have not heard in nary upon fifteen years.


That's right. An actual telephone bell. Julie and I both looked at each other, and then turned around to gawk at this ancient piece of machinery.

"Wait, is that a..."
"Yes. It is," I answered," already knowing she was marvelling at the rotary-dial telephone sitting on the take-out table.

Low rent people shuffled in and out the doors of the restaurant picking up their Chinese food.

In retrospect...I don't understand...why.

In short enough order, our food came. Our frail and reedy waiter put down an enormous tray on a shelf which probably once held extra plates for the restaurant's hundreds of diners -- now empty.

Julie's MuShu chicken looked good. Like a confetti party of colors and shredded chicken! Yayyyyy! Whoooo! My beef was colorful, with lots of vegetables...

But something was terribly wrong.

I knew at once that I was not going to be in for an enjoyable dining experience when I saw the large, steamed-looking, greyish brown hunks of flanken, swimming in a thin brown sauce, mixed in among the technicolor vegetables.

I hate Chinese Food when they give you big hunks of beef. Chinese food beef is best served sliced thin, and with the holy bejesus fried out of it. Like Orange Beef. Or garlic beef. Or any other permutation where the beef is sliced 1/4" or less thin, and deep fried for fifteen minutes.

Like the brave lil' trooper that I am, I piled my plate high with soft hunks of beef and peppers, scallions, and, what I can only assume...was squash?

I took a bite.

And nearly retched.

Julie, upon seeing my face contort with each jaw movement, promptly burst into mascara-smearing laughter. "STOP IT," she whimpered as she wiped her streaming eyes, "You made me cry! You ALWAYS MAKE ME CRY!"

But I had my own problems. I couldn't be bothered with running makeup. I was having a serious crisis.

The meat, you see, not only had the same texture, that I can only guess an Everglades deer's carcass assumes after three days of stewing in 87 degree water, but it had this...flavor.

A flavor I can only describe as... burnt dookie.

The meat was "not good enough" to eat.

Julie tried a piece, and I howled quietly into my napkin as her tears of laughter gave way to tears of regret...

"I thought you were just overexaggerating when you were making that face as you were eating that meat," she cried, "What is that FLAVOR?!"

"Besides poop," I asked, "Is that oyster sauce? I don't eat Seafood, so maybe that's oyster sauce?"

"That's NOT oyster sauce, I don't know what it is, but it's terrible," she proclaimed, "But that's okay. We still have the chicken."

I snarled. I didn't WANT the chicken. The chicken, though at least edible, was crappy. I tried to choke down some of my vegetables, but they, too, were imbued with the rich taste of alligator shit, and, after a weak attempt, I gave the dish up for good.

We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that we had only spent about 25 bucks on the food. And that we had probably paid their electric bill for the evening. Meanwhile, we quietly wondered to each other how that food tasted so BAD!?

I dug into my rice, pouting. This had been my idea, and it was my fault it was an abysmal failure. And still, the 71st Street crowd came and left with their bags of barf-inducing comestibles. There was soy sauce on the table which I generously splashed on my rice. I didn't know that soy sauce could taste bad. Now I do. Before I was able to warn Julie, she gave her rice bowl a couple heavy-handed splashes. After taking a bite, she groaned, "Ohhhhhhh. Now I've even ruined my rice!" The soy sauce, you see was "not fit enough" for human consumption. It tasted like soy sauce watered down with...spit.

Still hungry, eventually it was time to ask for the check and get the hell out of this nightmare. Our courterous and cheek-pinchingly precious waiter brought the check. And I'm not being facetious. God bless the staff of that Restaurant. It wasn't their fault that more appetizing products flow from down the drains of embalming tables.

Before he even asked, we asked him to box up the food. Not because we had any intention whatsoever of ever eating it ever again, as long as we both should live - rather, we had decided to give it to some of the unfortunate homeless we were destined to see along the way to my car. In retrospect, that was cruel. Didn't the homeless have enough problems?! But we didn't want to insult anyone at the restaurant having eaten roughly 5% of the food on the table.

He brought the food in a paper bag, and the check, along with two fortune cookies. Although the fortunes within were LAAAAME, the cookie was at least edible - the second thing besides the noodles, that we were able to eat without complaint.

Fifteen dollars apiece later, we picked up our bag, bid the waiter adieu, and skittered out of the restaurant.

Before the entry door even had a chance to slam, "THAT WAS TERRIBLE," Julie erupted. Feeling guilty, I shushed her, because I was sure that the receptionist, who reminded me a lot of Grandma on Margaret Cho's short-lived show "American Girl," had heard her critique, and promptly collapsed, sobbing, on the threadbare carpet.

We set the bag of food on the first trashcan we encountered on the way to the car. I set it on the edge, to show that, yes, it was food, and, yes, we didn't want it, and, yes, all the huddled masses, the tired, the poor, yearning to eat free, now could.

After I had crossed the street, I heard a thump, and looked back to see my Chinese food was now sitting on the sidewalk of 71st street. And although I felt bad for littering...I was not going to set that back on the garbage can.

It was "not worth it enough."