Done alone, a night of drinking is considered sad, unhealthy, even pathetic. Pretty fun too, if you ask me, but I once had a therapist who told me otherwise. An adventure in the company of friends, on the other hand, promises shared experience, a way to fortify and express friendship. In either case, setting means a lot. Draining a few beers on a weekday evening at a dive three blocks from my house is a pleasant, if fairly pedestrian activity. I pair it with a game I want to watch, or someone I’d like to see. It’s technically going out, but too close to home to feel very exciting. If I’m making a night of it, I prefer to leave my neighborhood and go somewhere far from the places I do laundry, buy groceries, and wait for buses, a setting where I won’t see anyone I don’t want to see, or suffer the irritating, familiar personalities populating the Mission on weekend nights. I also like going somewhere where good eats await in the early morning hours. When I can, I go to Chinatown.
I’m aware white people have been pursuing “exotic” vice on Grant St. for a century-and-a-half. I don’t feel part of this tradition. At least, I’d hate to be some obnoxious urban explorer strolling jauntily down narrow stone streets, ducking red lanterns, hoping to catch a whiff of opium sliding out from under a door as I head to Li Po Lounge or Buddha Bar to sip the same drinks I can order anywhere else. I don’t fantasize about gambling dens teeming with shady characters. I’ve read up on the salacious criminal history of the place and seen a few movies, but the allure has little to do with Chinatown’s past, and a lot more to do with its present.
At around 7:30 on Friday night, I crossed the intersection of Grant and Bush, and walked up the hill, under the Dragon Gate. As I walked north, past a parade of seafood restaurants with their dedicated hawkers trumpeting specials outside and drab shops selling cheap baubles and katana blades, a procession of tourists headed in the other direction, back toward their Union Square hotels. Families with sulking teens dragging behind, elderly couples in hiking boots and bad hats — they were finishing up their visits to the hallowed strip. They had snapped their pictures, scarfed their expensive dim sum lunches, and purchased a few curiosities to haul home. Dusk was settling down. They were exiting the premises, relinquishing it to the locals and anyone else coming through. It felt like a reverse commute. By 8:30, the streets were nearly empty, and I was at the Buddha Bar with a friend, my hand wrapped around an extremely cold bottle of Budweiser.
Save for us and the bartender, the bar was empty too. A few hours and several drinks later, other actors had entered the scene: a strange, lurching man with gigantic headphones covering his ears and an inability to stay upright on his stool for more than a few minutes, a tall, talkative blond lady, and a waitress in a red dress from the restaurant next door. The waitress was talking shit to the bartender, singing badly and loudly along with The Righteous Brothers emanating from the petrified jukebox.
You lost that lovin’ feeling Whoa, that lovin’ feeling.
By 11 p.m., the blond lady was playing Liar’s Dice with the bartender. If she lost, he said, she would remove some clothing. If he lost, she said, he’d pour ten free drinks. She won and passed the cherry-topped cocktails out like grocery store samples. The lurching man was gone. The waitress left and came back again. She knew the blond lady; they had cigarette after cigarette outside, cackling. The blond lady had just returned from Vegas, where she’d ditched a wealthy boyfriend only after running up a monstrous tab on their luxury suite. She was drowning out the wheezy jukebox chattering on about the boyfriend and others she’d had. The bar was her stage, the customers her captive audience.
At Buddha, the bathroom is down a flight of stairs, past stacks of empty boxes. The bartender dutifully buzzes open the lock for each costumer requiring relief, a task he repeats over a hundred times nightly. More people were streaming in now — a weary, beach-scorched couple having a nightcap, a bunch of noisy bros who’d cabbed over from a Polk Street meat market — and suddenly the skinny little bar packed with bodies. Every three seconds, the Liar’s Dice cup slammed down on the bar and someone screamed in horror or joy above the din. The weird, jerky rhythmic pattern of buzzer and cup was coming at me in stereo—the former honking in one ear, the latter banging away in the other. An hour before closing, we moved onto the more spacious Li Po Lounge across the street, where the mixed drinks taste like rubbing alcohol and the booths in the back are covered in sleazy vinyl the color of fingernail paint. As we squeaked and slid around a table in the back, I flashed on a flickering memory of a night in 2003 when some friends visited from New York and danced from table-top to table-top, hopping like frogs. I wasn’t sure if the memory was real, but it was in my head all the same.
At 2:30 a.m., my friend and I finally had what we hadn’t realized we’d been waiting for: a hearty “dinfast,” that blurry, yet satisfying repast enjoyed between closing time and dawn by witless forgot-to-eat-before-I-drank party people and late-shift toilers alike. My friend had been to Yuet Lee (1300 Stockton at Broadway) on a few prior occasions. In spite of my eight years in the city and occasional forays into Chinatown, I was a newbie, making a discovery I probably should have soaked up half a decade earlier.
Yuet Lee has a Coca-Cola sign above the door. In what seemed like one minute, I went from leaning against a pole outside of Li Po to sitting on a chair at a brown Formica table inside a bright spare dining room, craning back my neck and twisting my head in order to see the specials board without my glasses. I opened the fat menu and gazed at the dish descriptions. The letters, numbers, and characters started to undulate across the pages. My friend reached over and quickly closed it. The specials were the thing, it seemed, and that was fine by me. At that point, anything hot and greasy was fine by me. In the center of the room, a table of uniformed cops bellied up to a spread of brown-sauced noodles on white plates. Several beleaguered couples in party attire languished in the corner, chewing on spareribs. The restaurant was really bright, seemingly brighter every second, as if the lights were being turned up as the clock ticked along. I suppose that is typical of late-night establishments. Harsh florescents keep the drunks from falling asleep.
Our food arrived almost immediately after we placed our order. A glistening, pale nest of rings, tentacles, and assorted indeterminable bits, the peppery fried squid had a lovely crunch. The lip-stinging saltiness was oddly refreshing after the evening’s liquid diet. I recall a heap of noodles less vividly. They were very thin and yellowish, coated in a dry sauce redolent of curry. Slices of barbecued pork poked out from the tangles, along with half-circles of soft onion. I could have eaten buckets of this, in part because sucking up the clumps of noodles required such little effort. Though tastier, the mango chicken was harder to finish. In my state, I had a hard time getting my grease-slicked chopsticks to hold on to each slippery chunk of mango. Eating at the breakneck speed my liquor-logged stomach demanded was impossible under the circumstances, and at times, the constant tumbling of food from stick to table or napkin-shrouded lap was so maddening I couldn’t focus on the flavors. After it fell for the third time, I picked one errant morsel right off the table with my fingers. Whenever I managed to get mango and chicken in the same bite though, the pay-off — sweet, half-melted fruit and tender thigh meat — made up for the ordeal.
Chinatown is both physically and psychologically distant from my usual digs, stuck in the center of the busiest part of the city, yet remote at the same time. It’s on a different time-table. Overrun by tourists during the day, Grant Street is comparatively serene at night, unlike my neighborhood, which, apart from folks taking photos of the murals along 24th St., draws larger crowds when the sun drops down. As a general rule, I prefer going in when most people are going out, and for that, there’s no place like Chinatown after 9 p.m. I’ll never head across town for a burrito, even if it’s amazing, because I live in the Mission, but I will take two forms of public transportation in order to drink a Budweiser — the most ubiquitous of mediocre bar beers — in the right place. That place’s proximity to salt-and-pepper squid ensures subsequent visits will end the same way — with too many drinks and a few plates at 3 a.m.