Deals, Dares & Reviews To Help You Savor Your World.
We couldn’t remember the name of the place, or even what street it was on. But I knew we’d recognize The Cafe of a Thousand Insults as soon as we saw it, and we did. It was a small place; rundown, plain, a bit greasy-looking. A glaring green sign hung outside the restaurant with the words “China Cafe” written on it in both English and Cantonese (ah, that was the name!). Inside the bland, boxy dining room were a number of nondescript tables and chairs from a cut-rate restaurant supply catalog. Every last table was empty. Things had obviously changed.
We’d found this place years ago, on our very first expedition to Chicago’s Chinatown. Starving, tired of walking around and unable to decide on a restaurant, we’d finally chosen this particular spot simply because we saw that it was packed with a lively crowd of locals, all busily slurping soup, sipping tea and clicking chopsticks. We figured if they liked it, it must be good. We’d been shown to our table that first time by a harsh-faced waitress who’d frowned impatiently as we tried to decide what to order from the long and cryptic menu. And then came Insult Number One:
“Why you order three entrée?” she demanded in her clipped English. “You only two people. You order too much food!” We mumbled something about leftovers and to-go boxes, and as she stalked away, we burst out laughing. The food better be good here, we said to ourselves. Because the service sure sucks.
And the food was good, especially the Seafood Combination in Taro Basket – a lacy, crispy-fried taro bowl crammed with tender shrimp, scallops and conch wok-fried with fresh Chinese vegetables and dripping in Lobster sauce. We ate all we could, then waddled out with our to-go boxes full of leftovers, as promised.
A year or two later, we went back to China Cafe for dinner, this time accompanied by Ham’s son. He was a teenager at the time and a voracious eater, so we ordered a nice assortment of appetizers and entrees, including that incredible seafood-stuffed taro bowl. Our evil waitress promptly zapped us with Insult Number Two:
“You order many things. You want me bring you extra table?” The family sitting next to us looked up suddenly, worried they’d have to move to make room. “No thanks,” Ham assured her, a bit embarrassed. “I think we’ll be fine with just the one.” Again, the food we were served was superb, well worth our waitress’ sharp tongue and dark scowls.
And that’s how The Cafe of a Thousand Insults stayed in our memory — a humble little place with no ambience and shitty service, serving fantastic food, and dearly loved by the locals and the occasional wandering tourist. Over the years we’d laughingly bragged to all our friends how good the food was there, how it was always served a with generous helping of verbal abuse.
Now we’d finally brought some of those friends with us to check it out, and we couldn’t wait for our waitress to start spewing insults.
Ham noticed right away that our table was a bit sticky, so with much elaborate pantomime he asked our young, dimpled waitress for a hot towel. She giggled sweetly and brought one out right away. She cheerfully helped us scrub down our table (although it was far too dirty to be cleaned in one fell swipe) then patiently helped our persnickety friends navigate the complex menu, making suggestions to try this or that. She offered us extra pots of hot tea, and made no comment at all — actually nodded happily! — when we ordered a second plate of crispy spring rolls. She never once insulted us. In fact, she was nothing but friendly, efficient and charming throughout our entire meal.
I wondered if I should complain to the manager.
And our legendary Seafood Combination in Taro Basket? That incredible dish that kept us coming back, time after time, no matter how many insults the wait staff heaped upon our heads? This time it was, sadly, meh. We did enjoy those crispy spring rolls, and my beef with scallions was rather good, if a bit over-salted. But the magic was somehow missing. Seems that while China Cafe had upped its game in the service department over the years, it had slipped quite a few notches in food quality, and the restaurant was obviously suffering for it. Now that the waitresses here were actually pleasant, there was no one for them to be pleasant to — the crowds were long gone and the dining room was empty.
And we knew that we probably wouldn’t come back to The Cafe of a Thousand Insults either — even our fortune cookies were nice.