Whats my favorite restaurant? No question, The Far East Café on East First Street. Not only does it remind me of the time spent with my family, Far East is part of the Southern California Japanese American experience.
I know what youre saying to yourself, The Far East Café? That old greasy joint? But its so run-down. You really dont like that place do you? Oh, but I do.
Like my family, many Japanese Americans grew up on a Far East Café style of Cantonese Chinese food. My grandparents went there in the 30s. My father in the 50s. I in the 70s. And when I have children, the family scrapbook will show them in a high-chair continuing the tradition.
Although now less than glamorous, at one time Far East was the place to eat for JAs in Los Angeles. My dad says out-of-town relatives were always taken there to dine and older JA friends tell me family celebrations were often held there in the upstairs room. But if you mention Far East to younger JAs, many who grew up in the suburbs, you often get a Far East what? Others will often grimace, and remark about the cleanliness or grease content.
I feel for these unenlightened individuals raised on the bright neon of Panda Inn Express or the quick convenience of Wok Fast. True, it may not be chic or immediately accessible, but you have to admitFar East has soul. Like bacon fried rice, shoyu hot dogs, chili rice and others, Far East and places like it, are part of the Japanese American soul food experience. Foods that we all share in common. Foods that remind us of our struggles. Foods that we draw power from.
So what else is good about Far East? Lots of things. For one, the building can best described as, well
old. But its much more charming and functional than todays heartless mirrored structures. Its a throwback to brick and mortar; wrought-iron fire escapes; and yellowing, Model T-filled photos of the intersections at First and San Pedro.
Once entering the familiar turquoise painted glass windows, you run into one of the characteristic charms of Far Eastthe dark lacquered dividing panels. The walls, separating each table into tiny private eating areas. Where else can you eat in privacy without hushing your conversation or correcting less than gracious table manners? Only at home? Exactly, and thats one of the reasons I enjoy Far East so much, because its homey.
Like the warmth and familiarity of eating at home, things seldom change at Far East. The black formica tables, the smallish beige plates, and that old 7Up thermometer have been there as long as I can remember. Although the jukebox, the paper straws and the Charms candy are gone, the same antique clock ticks persistently away over table 14, and the mens bathroom still have one of those self-circulating wash cloth dispensers (I mean, were talking real cotton fabric here).
Also, according to my Grandma Chie, the same faded portraits of Chinese women hanging from the balcony were there before the war. How many hundreds of thousands of people have they jealously watched eating below? How can they stand being so close, yet so far? Forever salivating.
More importantly, the same waiters are still there. The older gentleman with the cane; his son, who often mans the cash register; the older gentle man with dark-rimmed glasses who acts as host; and several of the waiters have been there as long as I can remember. Like the friendly up the block neighbor who always waves, or grandmas own personal style of okazu, Far East creates a sense of reassurance that seems perpetual.
Along with the ambience, unforgettable is the food. Our family order always includes the basics; seaweed soup; chicken chop suey chow mein with pan fried noodles; chashu; China pea; shrimp with lobster sauce; a couple bowls of rice; and that venerable oldalmond duck. A-l-m-o-n-d d-u-c-k, it even sounds good. Duck meat pounded flata kind of poor mans version of roast duck. When my dad and his friend Bob Kaisaki make their monthly visits, they always order their own dish.
Once weaned on Far East, it stays with you. No matter where I go to eat, I always compare it with Far East. ABC, NMC, Phoenix, Lucky Deli, Sea Food Place, Pauls Kitchen, Gene Sing, Gung Hay, Seven Seas, Canton Kitchen, etc.Ive been to them all and more. Tasty as they are, something is always missing. Something personal.
Beyond the atmosphere and food, going to The Far East Café lets me relive my past. Every time I cross the middle of First Street I remember as a child running ahead of my parents, incessantly pressing the crosswalk button to get across the street to Mitsurus Children Shop. Any kid worth his weight in pet rocks knew that Japanese toys were the coolest. Those tiny die-cast gadgets that shot out miniature missiles or those wind-up dolphins that paddled around in water were the envy of the kids who patronized only Toys R Us.
While waiting for a table, my brother Chris and I would jump up and down on the 25 cent scale out front or press up against the warm glass of the jukebox. With youthful taste buds, wed dare each other to try the hot mustard. Throughout dinner continuously guarding our food in case of hot mustard sabotage. Although not on the menu, etiquette was taught and I distinctly remember being told to use the other side of the hashi when serving myself. Mowing lawns and trimming hedges must affect the pituitary gland because like at home, the last one eating was always Grandpa Yoshio.
After dinner my brother and I would zip back over to Mitsurus with the parental promise that we could get something small. Not wanting to sell ourselves short, we started high and worked our way down the price ladder.
How bout this?
Whatta bout this?
Hmmm, too much.
How about both of them, and Ill pay for college?
Press, press, press, press, press, until the traffic signal obeyed. Then back across the street to Michis Gifts to awe at the ingenious pencil cases and micro AM radios before ordering cherry snow cones. A box of manju for the family and that eat-the-wrapper-and-amaze-hakujin-kids Botan candy for me and Chris would round out the evening. A typical ride home would end in carnage with a back seat battle between our new toys: Ultra Man and Kikaida.
Even though its my favorite resturant, I admit, on occasion, Far East isnt always at its best. The chashu can be a bit dry, the almond duck a bit fatty, and sometimes the chow mein a little drab. Traffic and parking can also be a hassle. Fatty, drab and a hassle--couldnt the same things be said about life in general?
Just next door, the newly opened Japanese American National Museum preserves Japanese American history, but the Far East Café lives it. To help teach the younger generations about their JA heritage, the museum should tunnel a little view room towards Far East. Project some holograms of Issei and Nisei eating at the tables, pump in the smell of pakai and squab and I predict you could double museum donations.
But dont wait for that. Go take your children to the Far East Café and talk to them about the old daysthe good times and the bad. It will only give them strength.