Monday mornings are bad, but this week’s was exceptional—in addition to the usual dread of the numerous obstacles between me and the next weekend, it was marked by distinct feelings of loss and despair. First I was informed that the young man who cuts my hair—the only person I’ve ever trusted not to make a clown out of me—is moving back to Australia “forever, and never coming back.” Then, even worse, I confirmed a fear I had had since the previous Friday evening—my favorite Chinatown restaurant had closed.
That night, I had gone to Mott Street to eat at Sweet ‘n’ Tart Café, which I had always preferred over the later established and far too big Sweet ‘n’ Tart Restaurant down the street. When I got there, the gates were down. I was disappointed but didn’t think much of it—it was late and the café always closed earlier than the restaurant. I went on to the restaurant, where despite the larger menu, I ordered my usuals from the smaller place: Shanghai-style steamed pork dumplings (also known as “soup dumplings” because inside the delicate pouch is not just a lump of pork but also a dribble of fatty cooking liquid, which one pours into a spoon after the first bite), Chinese vegetables with oyster sauce, shrimp and watercress dumplings in noodle soup, and sometimes a turnip cake, Chinese sausage and rice, congee with clams and chicken, or the weird herbal Jell-O, which the waiter vehemently tries to dissuade Westerners from ordering.
The restaurant is fine for satisfying a craving, but the food simply isn’t as carefully prepared, and while the service was less than warm at either place, the café was cozier. I passed it again on the way home—this time to realize the sign was down. Panic struck but I told myself they must be getting a new sign—after all, they’d had the same one since I first started going, in high school, about ten years ago; it didn’t even light up or anything—they’re probably upgrading! On Monday, after hearing the news about my haircutter, I figured I should bite the bullet, get it over with. I called the café. The number had been changed (“That doesn’t mean anything—after all, they’ve had that same old number all these years—they’re probably just getting a catchier one!”) but the new digits given on the recording were those of the Restaurant. The manager there confirmed my worst fear, unsympathetically: “Oh, yeah. Closed. Gone. Just the restaurant now. Bye-bye.”
A sinking feeling overtook my stomach. Precious memories flooded my mind—there was the time my boyfriend almost choked to death on a nut-filled glutinous dumpling (at least he would have died laughing) or the dirty looks we used to get when the waiter had to pull up a second table to accommodate all the food we ordered, usually totaling about $20 or $30 for dinner for two. It pained me to think that the last time I was there, I didn’t even say goodbye.
I found that they had a website, and browsing it tearfully I was reminded of their Flushing location, which I had never been to. It was one last beacon of hope, so I grabbed my things and hopped on the 7 train. When I arrived, I was giddy and nervous as a bride-to-be. I was pleased to see the space was simpler than the Restaurant, which is multi-leveled, though bigger than the café. Most importantly, though, it was as cartoon-ish in its design as both of them put together, but cleaner, with friendlier service, and a big open kitchen.
The menu includes old stand-bys, like hand-made lo mein noodles with beef and scallion, which were every bit as good as at my beloved café. I was even moved to sample new things, like the watercress with bean curd sauce and the clams with black bean sauce (plump and juicy in a salty goo we ended up slurping from the shells). And Sweet ‘n’ Tart’s Taiwanese trademark, the strange medicinal desserts called tong shui, were all there. In fact, those infamous nut-filled glutinous dumplings, which are not nut-filled at all, but chewy rice balls rolled in chopped peanuts and sugar, were even better than I remember, though the setting was just a blank slate.