When you spend as much time inside of Chinese takeouts as I do, you start to notice some patterns. Like, every takeout has its regulars, people for whom the takeout is an essential part of their lives.
Food Wall in Jamaica Plain is one example. It has inspired something of a cult following. I walked up and down the street one afternoon asking people who work nearby how often they stop in.
“At least once a week,” said Saul Cifuentes, owner of Beauty Masters Salon and Supply.
“Lately I’ve been going at least three to four times a week,” said Josiah Simmons of the Video Underground.
James Norton of Revolution Bikes is trying to cut back, but “it used to be almost daily.”
None can top Fat Ram of Pumpkin Tattoo. He claims he's eaten there “Eleven days a week for 10 years. It’s too much. Too much Food Wall. I hit the Food Wall.”
So, what brings people back to Food Wall, again and again?
“Classic American laziness. Yeah. Takeout goes a long way. Somebody else is walking the food around for you. Pretty soon someday, you’ll be able to make a living shoveling food into lazy Americans’ mouths,” Norton said.
But maybe there’s a simpler explanation for his devotion to Food Wall. Norton also cites the “good food. Cheap prices. Fast service. Friendly people. Best Chinese food takeout I’ve ever had.”
But being a regular is more than just about how often you go. It’s about a perfect match between the needs of certain customers and the takeout’s ability to constantly adapt. The takeout is a lens through which we can see the social inner workings of a complex city like Boston.
Everyone told me the real regulars of Food Wall were the "barflys" across the street, at the Brendan Behan Pub. John Casey, the manager of the Behan, took a quick minute between pouring drinks to talk. “I guess it’s a symbiotic relationship. We help them, they help us. We don’t serve food but people who’ve had alcohol tend to love Chinese food, so it works out pretty well.”
But wait, are we onto an unspoken cultural connection here? Casey Gruttadauria was perched on a barstool. He said, “I feel like Chinese takeout to a certain extent is a drunken pleasure. You start drinking and you’re just like, 'Man, I just want some Chinese food' and then Food Wall is right across the street.”
But John Smith sees divine intervention at work. “It’s a match made in heaven, a Chinese restaurant across the street from an Irish bar. It doesn’t get any better than that, you know?”
The symbiosis runs deep between the two places. Food Wall menu includes curry chips, a classic dish to be eaten on the way home from the pub late at night in Ireland. I’d heard that Food Wall’s owner Alan Zhang, had something to do with it, so I asked Casey.
“Because of all of the Irish guys that used to be in here years ago — Dinny, Donny, Pauly and Patsy — they wanted curry chips and they explained to Alan what curry chips were and he put them together and that was it,” Casey told me.
Something that’s going to fill me up
After Food Wall in Jamaica Plain, I headed to Hong Kong Chef. It’s an old neighborhood takeout in Savin Hill that was recently taken over by new owners.
I found customer David Holbert at the counter counting out change he’d emptied from a large Dunkin Donuts cup and joking with the staff. I asked him how often he came here, and he responded, "Every day."
Li Canle, the Hong Kong Chef counterman, chimed in, “Yes, comes here every day.”
Holbert swears by the Number 10, a dish of roast pork with vegetables, chicken fingers and fried rice that is enough food to feed Holbert and three of his friends who are waiting nearby.
Every day at dinner, this takeout’s regulars come in: homeless men, ready to spend the money they’ve earned panhandling nearby. Holbert says the owners let them use the bathroom and wash their faces.
Glen Connolly is also a Hong Kong Chef regular. “I come here all the time because I’m homeless so I come here because it’s a lot cheaper to come here than any other place,” he said. He said he comes in at least 6 days a week: “I always get the chicken and rice soup because it always fills me up. I need something that’s going to fill me up because I don’t have that much money to live out here. That’s only $3.75.”
Connolly has been living in Dorchester all his 53 years. For the past 2 years, he’s been homeless and living on his Social Security check of less than $800 a month. He’s renting a bed nearby in a shelter and waiting for a public housing assignment.
Hong Kong Chef is just a stopgap measure for him. “I just want to cook my own food, I want to be in my house and I want to watch TV by myself. I don’t want to have 9,000 people in the house. So it’s hard, it’s very hard,” he said.
Holbert’s Number 10 is ready, and he gets ready to go back out into the night. He and owner Lisa Li trade affectionate banter before he goes.
For these men, Hong Kong Chef is a place to get affordable, filling food in the neighborhood, with clean bathrooms and a friendly word.
While Hong Kong Chef depends on the business of these regulars, there can be downsides. After they leave, the counterman Li Canle tells me about a different homeless man who comes in often. “There’s one who’s really troublesome. He goes to sleep in here. When he doesn’t have money, he just lies down in here. I tell him I’m going to call the police and then he goes,” he said.
A mile and half down the road, Yum Yum, in the Fields Corner area of Dorchester, also plays host to regulars who can sometimes cause trouble: teenagers. In the afternoons groups of teens cram into the takeout’s bright orange-and-green picnic tables.
I want to find out more so I head over to the local youth center, the Dorchester Youth Collaborative.
Antoine Johnson, who’s 12, tells it in simple terms. “I like Yum Yum. You know why? Because they give me a dollar plate and it’s a dollar and it’s lot of rice and a lot of ribs. And it fills my yum yum, I mean my tummy up because it’s yum yum.”
A few years ago when the economy weakened and Yum Yum’s business declined, they began selling dollar plates. One dollar for a small box of pork fried rice. Another dollar to add some boneless ribs. It’s drawn the teenagers in.
“You’ll see a lot of teenagers sitting in there and then one out of ten will be eating the dollar rice. Just one out of ten,” said Ashley Mitchell, who at 19 has aged out of Yum Yum. She says the young teens don’t just go for the cheap food.
“So that’s the place for the kids to chill when they don’t have anywhere to go because they used to chill at McDonald’s too but they kick you out at McDonald’s," Mitchell explains. "But if you chill inside of Yum Yum’s, he won’t kick you out. He’ll let you sit there. Because they don’t really want to sit on the sidewalk because usually if there’s some teens standing in front of a restaurant, the police stop and stop them.”
The teenagers at the youth center agreed. “They never tell us to go,” one told me.
“With Fields Corner, we have many youth here,” said Evelyn Darling, the executive director of Fields Corner Main Street, who added that after school lets out, local youth tend to be at loose ends. “But they have a little bit of money, and so we see a number of businesses here who really understand that and they tend to be gathering places for local youth.”
Liu Qiuyan, who works Yum Yum’s counter during the day, is happy for all of the business the dollar plate brings.
“We welcome them! But sometimes they create chaos and I have to yell at them. A lot of kids around here don’t have manners. Those that have been raised well are okay; those that aren’t are trouble,” she said.
As I’m sitting in Yum Yum, a group of teens comes in and sure enough, only one orders a dollar plate. And he soon claims there’s a hair in it.
Soon the teens are all out of their seats, yelling and demanding a replacement. There are calls for the health inspector and whoops of pleasure as they make a scene.
Liu says the hair doesn’t come from the takeout.
After seeing they won’t be placated, Liu finally relents and gives them a new box. But this isn’t enough — the teens eventually dump the box of rice face down onto the counter and run out.
Liu is shaken and angry. “You have to be really careful with these kids. It’s hard to run a business here. Sometimes they get into fights. Once 20 kids crowded up to the counter wanting to grab my money and I had to block their way …”
But before she can tell the end of the story, the phone rings — and it’s back to business for Liu.
Planet Takeout is a documentary project from WGBH, Zeega and Localore, a national production of the Association of Independents in Radio,with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Share your Chinese takeout story and explore a Boston map at planettakeout.org.