In our family’s anecdotal history, today marks the date that the restaurant P. F. Chang’s initials became forever after immortalized as Precaution: Flying Chile. Let me explain.
It all started on a sunny Sunday afternoon, when we invited Doña Patria to accompany us to eat at P. F. Chang’s new restaurant in Plaza Las Americas. Just managing to eat there was a feat in itself; the event had so many factors conspiring against it:
- Being new, the restaurant had long waiting lines in the first several weeks after it opened, and we were planning to go on a Sunday afternoon, itself a busy time for any restaurant.
- Luisa dislikes Chinese food in general, especially the greasy stuff served at cheap Chinese restaurants where they use industrial quantities of MSG to cover up the fact that their food doesn’t really taste good anyway. Also, she has had unpleasant reactions to MSG in the past, and has been leery of almost all Chinese restaurants since. The only exception has been Back Street Hong Kong in the El San Juan Hotel, which she loved, but it closed several years ago, much to our dismay.
- Doña Patria had seen the façade of P. F. Chang’s from the outside, and the imposing horse statues and dark color scheme gave her a foreboding of a place that she wouldn’t enjoy entering.
But today, despite all odds, as we say in Borinquen, el evento se dió.
We were lucky to find parking right in front, which was good, so that Doña Patria wouldn’t have to walk very far. To our surprise, the wait for a table was less than ten minutes. Doña Patria surveyed the ambiance and thought, “bueno, no está mal.” We inquired whether they used MSG in their dishes, and the waitress inquiry to the kitchen and our own Google inquiry came back with the same answer simultaneously: No, they do not use MSG.
Things were definitely looking up.
I myself was eagerly looking forward to this. I love good Chinese food. Heck, I even love lousy Chinese food.
My mind drifted back, back into the distant recesses of my memory, back when I was in graduate school and worked summer jobs for the State of Kansas, which involved traveling the entire state, visiting each and every county and its respective county seat. I remember being amazed how there—in the middle of the homogeneous plains—a few gems of diversity glinted like a galvanized steel-sided grain elevator in the afternoon sun: Almost every small Kansas town had one Chinese restaurant. Run by real Chinese who, although they were second- or third-generation Chinese-American, still spoke Chinese between themselves, and to the rest of they world they drawled the same folksy, affable Kansas drawl that all Kansans do. Where did they all come from? Well, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had come over from China in the mid and late 1860s as indentured servants to link the East and the West: They built the great transcontinental railroads. Swinging pick and axe, tossing and catching railroad ties, hammering down millions of spikes to hold down the rails, their sweat contributed to the very lifeblood of our adolescent nation and its economy. Many of their offspring stayed put, and found a niche to fill: they established Chinese restaurants.
But I digress… (Dx: major digression)
We ordered tea and drinks and appetizers, and then ordered the main course. (I won’t give you much detail here; this is not a restaurant review but rather a food-related anecdote. Bear with me.)
My main dish came out cold. No surprise. That has happened to us so often in larger restaurants on Sunday afternoons that I suspect that it may be one of the culinary laws of nature: In a busy restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, food will be served cold 90% of the time. In case I am the first to have ever put this down in writing, let it be known henceforth as Ficek’s First Culinary Law. (insert standard copyright disclaimer here) I complained to the waitress and suggested that she have it nuked. She apologized and informed me that no, she would not have it warmed up. Instead, they would cook up a fresh dish right away, and that I could be assured that it would be served hot. And it was. The food was without exception delicious.
As we were getting close to finishing our meal, there came a sudden commotion and the sound of something small falling behind us, in the entrance to the kitchen. Immediately Joey and I got splattered by something on our heads and shoulders. Our table also got splattered by something. It took a full minute to discover exactly what had happened: a waitress leaving the dining room for the kitchen lost control of a tray, and a small container of red chile sauce fell to the floor. Its sudden deceleration and acceleration back away from the floor sent its contents flying a prodigious distance through the air—a full twenty feet across the first row of tables into our table in the second row.
The appearance of red chile sauce on clothing is not a pleasant sight. It gives the unsightly suggestion that the clothing’s owner may not practice the same kind of personal hygiene as the majority of civilized folk. On the front of a shirt, it gives the impression that its wearer is a hearty but sloppy eater, an impression that is entirely forgivable. However, when the red chile splashes are on the back, shoulders and neck, the uninitiated observer has no clue how this may have come about, and can only draw the conclusion that the red-splotched individual (now blushing a similar red color) is someone who befalls strange and unusual manifestations of fate, and is someone to be avoided by as large a distance as possible.
Indeed, the wait staff wished to have as little to do with us as possible, and only after considerable pleading and motioning to the manager, did we succeed in having them deliver to us half a dozen wet wipes which Joey and I used on each other to try to remove the splattered sauce from our clothing and hair. Our attempts to remove the stuff were largely ineffective; several large reddish-brown stains had already penetrated our respective shirts and wouldn’t come out with such meager measures.
Luckily, the aerial range of red chile sauce from a ceramic container dropped onto carpet was limited by the laws of physics and aerodynamics to just twenty feet. Had it reached twenty-three feet, the caustic capsicum concoction would have landed in the faces and eyes of Luisa and her mother, who were seated opposite us, facing directly towards the scene of the accident. Luckily for us, so many laws—physical, culinary and whatnot—were present and were being applied in the circumstance that there wasn’t any room left for Murphy’s Law, which is what saved the two ladies from being blinded by flying chile sauce.
Postscript: The manager knocked off a sizable discount from our check, and gave us a dessert on the house.
Post-postscript: And we forgot the brown bag containing our leftovers on the table in the restaurant.