“Are you feeling adventurous. . . ?” the young waitress asks, taking the time to pause her scurrying, as she has been busy taking care of all the other tables in the small restaurant. She is answering my questions about the best thing on the menu. “. . . or do you want something a little bit safer, and more tame?” I’m ready for an adventure, so she tells me about alligator curry, dim sum, and house-made Kimchi. It’s an eclectic mix of dishes. I’m glad the restaurant is open on Christmas day.
When we’d arrived, the owner of family-owned Hong Kong Café greeted us at the door. Asking whether we minded sitting outside, on an unseasonably cold Floridian day, at the end of December, he took us out to a large round table, under a canopy. The table was covered in the mess left by the previous diners. He grabbed the edges of the table cloth, quickly folded them toward the center of the table, and whisked away all evidence of hot sauce, sticky rice and steamed, meat-filled Chinese dumplings.
The restaurant was prepared for its busiest day of the year, completely booked from 4 – 8 pm. Their Facebook page warned that reservations would be required, and when I saw that there were only around 8 or 10 indoor tables, I understood why. There were another 5 tables outside, in what the proprietors called the “new addition”. Sharing the canopy space, there are pots of herbs and hot peppers lining shelves, and larger plants settled along the outer edge of the cement floor. All are for sale, along with the Kimchi and sweet and sour sauce inside.
I’m pretty certain that I’ve never made reservations for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. On most occasions, I walk in, and grab a paper menu at the counter, then order take-out, based on what I see on the large, faded, back-lit photos hanging on the back wall, over a pass-through kitchen window.
At these restaurants I expect high sodium content, the sort you feel coursing through your blood, after just a few bites, but I don’t expect a lot of flavor. Maybe that’s because I stick with Shrimp in Lobster Sauce, white rice, and a veggie spring roll. There’s not a lot of flavor there, but my tastes are changing. I looked forward to something more flavorful at this holiday meal.
On the table are large, colorful menus, with professionally produced photos of each item, and text in the lower right corner of each page, which reads: “The pictures above are for reference only. The real object should be considered as final.” Well, okay. I decide I’ll take my chances, and only reference the second, paper menu I’m handed for prices.
A large portion of the menu is Dim Sum, which is served in small portions, so you can order multiple items, and share around the table. This approach seems perfect for the next table over, where four hungry 20-something Asian males reach across one another, with their chopsticks, to select a taste of this and a bite of that. Plate after plate arrives, covered in chunks of meat, steamed dumplings, and fermented Kimchi. The meal is washed down with creamy pink or white Bubble Tea, served in large plastic cups, with oversized straws, to accommodate the slippery tapioca balls that characterize the drink.
It’s a bit of a surprise to find myself at this Chinese restaurant, on Christmas Day, in St. Augustine, FL. Traditionally, for the last 43 years, I’ve woken up on Christmas morning in my childhood bedroom, in the snow-covered Chicago suburbs. This year, corporate America, and the fickle demands of work travel, have landed me in sunny Florida over the holiday. So, it was time to honor a different sort of Christmas tradition.
Remembering the antics of Ralphie, Randy, and their parents in A Christmas Story, set in the 1940s, when Christmas doesn’t work out quite the way you planned it. . . well, you make a different plan. In the film, the only restaurant open on Christmas day, after the neighbor’s band of hounds barges in and tears apart the family’s turkey dinner, is Bo’Ling Chop Suey Palace.
Nine-year-old Ralphie laments that there would be no turkey, no turkey sandwiches, no turkey salad, no turkey gravy. . . it was gone, all gone! Keeping his calm, for the first time that Christmas, the Dad instructs the family to get upstairs and get dressed – they were going out for Christmas dinner. They head out into the snow (the movie was filmed in Cleveland, OH), and find themselves the only family, eating alone in the Chinese restaurant.
When Peking duck shows up on the table, as a stand-in for the family’s obliterated turkey, with the head still attached, the Dad comments that he’s smiling! With the swift swing of a cleaver, the head is disposed of, and Ralphie is introduced to “Chinese turkey”.
The family is serenaded by the restaurant staff, who do their best to sing “Deck the Halls”. The famous scene, with exaggerated Chinese stereotypes, has driven many families to Chinese restaurants on Christmas day, since the film came out in the 1980s. These days the holiday season begins the day after Thanksgiving, and continues with parties and family gatherings throughout the month of December, leaving many folks with no obligations on the actual holiday. So, they go out for Chinese food, which is their new family tradition.
In an effort to avoid accusations of racist content, Christmas Story Live! changed the Chinese restaurant scene. The musical backs away from the blatant Chinese stereotypes, while doing its best to stay true to the humor and spirit of the movie.
“But the most noticeable update comes toward the end of the production, during the Chinese-restaurant scene when a group of Asian waiters sing “Deck the Halls” for Ralphie and his family on Christmas day. The original film depicted the waiters as performing the song with stereotypical mispronunciation, singing the song’s refrain as “Fa ra ra ra ra”, instead of “Fa la la la la.” But in this version, the quintet — in real life, the a cappella group Filharmonic — performs the classic carol flawlessly.”
As the song concludes, Ralphie’s father says, “I wasn’t expecting that!” The restaurant staff replies “What were you expecting?”
Anyone who has seen the film knows the answer.
Join me on my next adventure,
Hong Kong Café: http://www.hkcafe.us/
A Christmas Story on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Story-Full-Screen-Peter-Billingsley/dp/B000VBIGCW
A Christmas Story House: http://www.achristmasstoryhouse.com/
A Christmas Story 5K/10K Race: http://www.achristmasstoryhouse.com/5k10k-run/
A Christmas Story Live! (Vulture): http://www.vulture.com/2017/12/christmas-story-live-chinese-restaurant-scene.html