In the Fragrant Harbor

Hong Kong Restaurant

3871 Fourth Avenue, Hillcrest

"Chinese?" I say.

"Indian!" says Carla. "Please, please."

It's around four in the afternoon. We're on Fourth, up in Hillcrest. Carla's just out from having an MRI done on her knee. Leg's mending well, but the knee ligament's giving her hell.

So yeah, I really do want to spoil her a little. Now she's giving me the opportunity. "Oh look! India Princess. They have a lunch deal. 'Daily lunch buffet.' We can afford $8.95!"

We poke our noses in. This Indian guy comes toward us up a long, red hallway.

"Lunch buffet still going?" I ask.

"I'm afraid not, sir."

"So...we'd have to have the regular dishes, like, 15 bucks or so?"

"That's right, sir. À la carte."

That means a $45--$50 bill. I ain't handing over no Ulysses S. Grant for a late lunch.

So I frog-hobble Carla out and along to the only other reasonable place I know around these parts. Ye olde, unchanging Hong Kong. I've noticed it from the bus stop across Fourth for years -- 'specially late at night, when everything else is closed and it's packed -- this smoky blue-and-mustard-colored frontage next to Column One, by the statue and stone fountain at Fourth and University.

Right now, it's just waking up for the evening session. Staff is humping plastic bags of veggies and other supplies. Couple of solo folks hooped over their noodles. Rows of dark cherrywood chairs waiting to be sat on. Half-dozen empty booths.

We get a table near a couple of black-and-white Chinese brush paintings on the walls. A horse, a rooster. I look at Carla. Is she mad 'cause I cheated her of her Indian lunch? Suddenly, she leans over the big, rigid menus we're holding, and smiles.

"Remind you of something?" she asks.

"Uh, every Chinese eatery in every downtown..."

"No, my love, no. The New American."

She looks at me. I'm drawing a blank.

"The New American, dummy. Singers, Bangers, Honkers...?"

Ah! Heck, we're talking a dozen years back. We had come up from Singapore and Bangkok to Hong Kong. Singers, Bangers, Honkers. We were both wet behind the ears, new to this world, new to each other, staying in the YMCA, cheapest joint in Hong Kong. Caught the ferry across the Fragrant Harbor ("Hong Kong" means that) to the island, collapsed into the "New American" eatery -- one of the oldest li'l ol' restaurants on the island -- and discovered northern Chinese foods. Basically grains, not rice. And dragon-breath hot 'n spicy. Oh man.

"So let's see what they have in the way of northern," Carla says. "But please, don't let me order Kung Pao anything." Yeah, right. Carla has this problem. Whenever she eats Chinese, she ends up eating Kung Pao. North or south, that's her default meal. She likes the heat, the ginger, the peanuts, the green onions.

'Course the menu's not laid out by geography but by ingredient. Like, chicken, pork, beef, seafood, vegetables, egg, noodles, and rice. Oh, and rice noodles. So it's hard to separate Mandarin from also-rans. I start scanning, from Number 1 ("Pu Pu Tray," an assortment of just about everything, snack-size, $11.95 for two) to Number 905 (lichees, $2.00).

We start off with Number 6: eight fried, pork-filled wonton on raw cabbage, ($3.00). Kinda delish with a splot of mustard. I order a pot of Chinese tea, too, with the little cups. Love its tart taste. And the endless pouring. Makes you think of Chinese tea ceremony.

We notice that our server comes quick, reacts quick, and brings stuff pronto, even though isn't crowded. Carla approves. "Remember the old Chinese saying," she says. "Get 'em in, get 'em out. Keep 'em moving."

"Right," I say. "And the kitchen is always up front so everyone can see it's busy and hear the action."

"And no lingering -- workers or customers."

'Course Carla goes for -- what else? -- Kung Pao chicken and rice ($8.50). I spot Number 807, "Singapore Style Rice Noodle, $10.50."

"Ooh yes, take that one," says Carla. "Remember? It'll have curry, right? Singapore. Raffles Hotel, taking tiffin, late-afternoon tea, with those curry sandwiches? God bless the British. You'll eat Indian after all."

The food comes quick. The slight curry flavor to my noodles tastes great, and not very Chinese. Well, Muslim-Chinese, maybe. But man, it works with the shrimp and pork. While we eat, starts filling up. Couples, students, IT-types yakking about viruses, medical lab techies talking about other viruses. "You should see us at midnight," says our server guy as he hands us the bill, $24.83. "Crazy busy. It's been like that for 25 years."

"Oh Lord."

"What?" says Carla.

I've just spotted the back page. "We could have ordered Combination Lunches. Your Kung Pao chicken would have come with egg drop soup, egg roll, fried wonton, and fried rice for $5.50!...I can't stand it."

She looks at me. "Man, you are so woulda-coulda-shoulda. You can't enjoy anything anymore, can you? You're always looking for the better deal."

"Well, if you just want to throw money away," I start. But I suddenly wonder: Is she right?

We head out. It's dark now. Her voice is seductive again.

"So, my little Kermie," she says, doing Miss Piggy, "Indian lunch next week?"

"Hey," I say. "What for? I just had pretty decent curry, right here. Can't say I'm exactly dying for more."

"Wanna curry favor? Say yes, and live."

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