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Friday, September 16, 2005

Eat Uncomfortable Challenge #1: 86'd

Yesterday, me and "K" went to Gold Mountain on Broadway for lunch.

"K" is, or should I say was, a co-worker who had just been given the ax because his performance wasn't up to the standards he originally sold himself on. The funny thing is, I think he knew this. Almost everyone looking for a better job fluffs up their resume a little. I've known folks who just downright lie on their resume. Some folks get by, while others fail. Sometimes horribly.

"K" was of the latter. He had sold himself as being a highly experienced drafter/job captain when, we latter found out, he was just a beginner.

On Wednesday, the bossman gave him an ultimatum: either take a drastic cut in pay, or hit the road. All of this happened within eyeshot of where I was sitting, with "K" facing me the whole time. Because I knew it was coming, I felt guilty, sick to my stomach, and avoided looking at him. The office grapevine is a horrible phenomenon. Sometimes I would rather just not know. Knowing made me feel part and parcel to the firing.

To tell you the truth, I hoped "K" would stay, even at a lower rate. During the past three months, I've enjoyed talking to him about work, Chinese history, and politics. But on Thursday, he finally told us he was leaving and today was his last day.

Around noon, I approached "K" and asked him if he was busy, and if not, would he like to go to lunch. He didn't answer at first, and when he finally said "yes", "G" who was sitting nearby said "I thought you said yesterday that you didn't want to go to lunch with us".


"K" said he had changed his mind, but when "G" said "well, we'd like to go to Chinatown with you but can you wait until 12:30?", "K" said "no, I'm hungry now".

Was this a burn? Am I seeing "K" burn "G" in front of my own eyes?

After "K" stepped out to use the restroom, I apologized to "G" and said I had no idea what "K" meant by all that. "G" blew it off. All I know is that I didn't want to piss off "G" since not only do I have to work with him everyday, but he's also my Chinatown lunch buddy.

After stepping out of the office, "K" suggested we go to Gold Mountain for dim sum, or more appropriately, yum cha, which means "drink tea". It would be my first visit to Gold Mountain and my first, and last, lunch with "K".

In San Francisco's Chinatown, you see the words "gold mountain" on everything from restaurants, to murals, and even on a Buddhist monastery. When news of the gold rush hit Canton in 1848, thousands of Chinese men sailed to "Gum Shan", or Gold Mountain as California was then called, in order to strike it rich. Since then, very little has changed. Just look at "K"; that's his story in a nutshell.

There is nothing special about the Gold Mountain restaurant, other than not having to wait a long time to be seated. Most of the customers are Chinese with a few gweilos thrown in for good measure. The dim sum, for the most part, is brought around on carts.

Once we were seated, we were asked what kind of tea we wanted. "K" ordered the Gok Fah, or Chrysanthemum, tea for both of us. Gok Fah tea is light green in color with a sweet fragrance and has a cleansing effect in between bites of various dim sum. If you can't remember the Cantonese name, "K" suggested you order the "flower" or "yellow flower" tea and most waiters/waitresses will know what you're talking about.

I also let "K" order the dim sum and to my surprise it was very conventional, but good, fare. Of course there was har gow and siu mai, but in addition he ordered the chicken feet, the beef tripe, and the beef balls (er, not what you're thinking).

After we began to eat, "K" made a remark saying that I'm the second Caucasian he knows that likes chicken feet. Well, that's one more than I know. And had "K" not ordered it, I still wouldn't know whether I like it or not. Honestly, I've been afraid to try it. I had no idea how to eat it or even what to look for as far as taste and texture. Ditto for the beef tripe. "K" explained that the skin is the edible part of the chicken feet. So, without hesitating, I picked one up with my chopsticks, grabbed onto a claw with my teeth, and pulled off the skin. To my surprised, it tasted like chicken! Or, actually, chicken skin that was lean and coated in a sweet dark red glaze.

Before I go any further, it should be pointed out that "K" said that none of this stuff is what he and other Chinese people actually eat at home. For one thing, most of the dumplings are too time consuming to make daily. Second, most of the flavors are too strong to eat on a regular basis (remember, the Cantonese value the freshness and pure taste of ingredients and season their food very lightly). One thing he neglected to mention, but what I suspect, is that it just isn't nutritious to eat dim sum all of the time. I've said it once and I'll say it again: I want to see the dim sum version of "Super Size Me". Oh, Morgan Spurlock made it through a month on nothing but McDonalds, but let's see him last two weeks on lo bok go, dahn tat, and Chinese donuts.

The other dim sum dish I'd been leery of trying was the beef tripe. For some reason or other, I've always imagined tripe tasting like the chit'lins my friend's Mom made for us when I was 12.

Not these.

The tripe, which the waitress will cut up for you, didn't have much flavor on it's own, but was great at clinging on to the sauce, making it very juicy. The sauce (or juice really) was thin and clear, and had a sweet, light, and mildly piquant taste. Part of the texture of the tripe was like that of jellyfish; a mildly crunchy and rubbery give once you bit down. The other part of the texture was what I can only describe as the closest I've come to eating a French Tickler.

The har gow and siu mai were by far the best I've had in Chinatown, which compared to places like You's and Louie's isn't much, but still good nevertheless. The beef balls we had were very beefy tasting despite the fact that I didn't actually see anything that resembled meat. Instead, they were a dark color and had that weird consistency that the shrimp and fish balls have.

Those balls truly scare me. Perhaps it's been all of the horror stories I've heard of the fish balls at the Tonga Room.

All in all, our total bill was $14. Not bad considering the amount of food we ordered. Most importantly, I came away totally smitten by the Chrysanthemum tea. My other two winners were (yes) the chicken feet (fun to eat) and the beef tripe; consider my fear of them gone.

The whole time "K" and I sat talking about food and what type of work he was going to look for next, I kept anticipating that he was going to launch into a tirade against my boss and co-workers. Or maybe say how he never liked the job and what a pathetic company it was to work for, etc. Thankfully, he didn't. But that impending sense of "is he going to lose his shit" did hang in the air the whole time. If he had gone ballistic, I could sympathize, since my boss can be an impatient asshole on occasion. And in fact, some of those occasions have been him barking demands at "K".

I've been to plenty of lunches for co-workers who were quitting and moving on to other jobs or places, but this was the first lunch I've had with a co-worker who got fired. Maybe I wouldn't have be so inclined to ask "K" to lunch had he been one of those types of co-workers you pray day in and day out to get supremely shit-canned.

The hard part was that, while everyone seemed to agree that "K's" performance "wasn't a good match", "K" personally was.

To make lunch that day feel even more uncomfortable, it seems my favorite Bahn Mi joint has closed. As "K" and I were walking to Gold Mountain, we passed its newspaper-upped windows, looking as if it had been closed for months when only last week I was sitting inside.




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