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.