By Leah Li
“Pop, pop, pop” – the sound of gunshots filled the air. All around us, startled patrons looked up from their dishes, some of them mid-bite. Amidst the noise, bewildered faces turned toward the entrance, then toward each other, until a few managed to correctly guess the source: “Chinese firecrackers.” As the sonic battering faded, the diners’ expressions relaxed and they resumed eating and chatting, the disturbance already half-forgotten.
Moments later, a loud drumming resonated in the room. Heads lifted again: some were curious, some had promptly become annoyed. The drums quickened their rhythmic beats as a handful of cymbals joined into the commotion. Then, a ripple of astonished cries and pointed fingers spread across the tables: three golden, larger-than-life lions had bobbed their way into the room. Three more followed at their tails; then, three more. They wove and stepped between the tables in cadence, balancing daintily on four fabric-clad sneakers. Inadvertent glimpses of the beasts’ undersides showed teenage boys holding the structures upright, sweat trickling down the sides of their puffing red faces.
We had managed to step into an entirely different world when we came through the doors of San Francisco Chinatown’s Far East Cafe that night.
This was a world filled with the chattering of voices: there was the familiar tone of Chinese, yet intensified with a mixture of various foreign dialects; and, there was English, yet uniquely accented by travelers from Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, and even Texas.
It was a world bombarded on all sides by audio-visual stimulus in addition to its elaborate performances: from exquisite sculptures to delicate paintings to festive decorations for the Lunar New Year.
It was a world over-saturated by Eastern flavors and tastes in every possible way, the food in particular: despite a slight suspicion of the likely presence of MSG in every bite, the thought was overshadowed by a true appreciation of taste. Seemingly enjoyed by locals, foreigners, elderly, and children alike, the palatable dishes were savored with as much satisfaction as they were presented.
The evening could have been summarized in two words: sensory overload. Although its decor may have been a bit too gaudy, its entertainment too flamboyant, its food too flavorful – Far East Cafe certainly provided a thoroughly one-of-a-kind dining experience.