A sight rarer than the unicorn.
When it comes to dining options on Christmas, the choices are few and far between for the greater non-Christian population of America; however, there is usually one standby whose open doors have become a tradition unto themselves. I’m of course talking about your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, a culinary outpost in a sea of “Closed for Christmas” door signs. Eating Chinese on Christmas is pretty much the de facto alternative dining option on the 25th — so much so that it was even immortalized in that most hallowed of holiday offerings, A Christmas Story.
So surely finding a Chinese restaurant open on Christmas in Los Angeles should be no problem, right? In a city with a rather sizable Jewish population, not to mention two popular Chinese eateries with the seemingly un-Christian names of Genghis Cohen and Mao’s Kitchen, a veritable feast of Yangtze proportions would await those of us seeking out the supple flavors of soy and MSG. Or so we thought. This is Los Angeles, of course — a city that rarely makes sense at any given time.
Christmas 2007 had rather humble beginnings for me. I spent a good portion of the morning (or at least a good portion of the morning that I was awake for — precisely one hour) with my family. And by family, I mean Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, and Toad.
Yes, Christmas for me is a day filled with not a lot of activity. I usually find myself in some sort of dormant, vegetative state that grows into acute malaise, leading to a general state of blah. This year, however, I actually had a goal: have a Chinese feast. My friend Jash was actually in town, and while he’s not Jewish, he likes to think he is, and therefore, starting about two weeks ago, we decided we’d eat dinner at Genghis Cohen, one of the few local Chinese restaurants that actually serves egg rolls. As far as neighborhood Chinese restaurants go, I’d have to rank Genghis Cohen, or GengCo, at the top of my list. It bills itself as authentic New York Chinese dining, and while it may fall a shade short of that lofty ideal, it’s certainly close enough. The dark decor studded with deep booths and Lazy Susans spurs fond memories of Dragon Pavillion and Royal Gourmet, two staple Chinese eateries of my vibrant youth — alas, long since deceased (the restaurants, that is. Although, youth too, I suppose). The food itself is almost always deeply satisfying. Not everything on the menu is a grand slam, but between the New York egg rolls, the beef skewers, the walnut shrimp, and the “Nothing Special Beef Sizzler,” (to name a few) there’s almost always a dish perfectly suited for my mood.
And speaking of egg rolls, let me just mention this. Los Angeles seems to be nearly completely devoid of those fried nuggets of cabbage-filled splendor. Sure, some menus might actually promise “egg rolls,” but almost always, you’ll invariably be stuck with mere spring rolls. Now, I love a spring roll as much as the next guy, but they’ll always be the Luigi to egg roll’s Mario (to borrow some terminology from my Christmas morning Mushroom Kingdom adventures). Nevertheless, with egg rolls in such short supply, I’m ecstatic over any establishment that serves them up, and hence, Genghis Cohen earns bonus points for providing me with my favorite Chinese appetizer of yore. They’re not exactly like the ones I had growing up in New York, but they’re pretty close, and delicious enough.
So what does this all have to do with the Holidays? Well, it’s to help you understand the specific cravings Jash and I were suffering from as lunchtime fast approached on Christmas. Even though our plan was to enjoy a warm Chinese banquet Christmas night, by 1 PM we simply couldn’t wait any longer. We were going to have a Christmas lunch instead.
Jash and I hopped in the car, drove over to Fairfax Avenue (a historically Jewish avenue in Los Angeles) and pulled up to Genghis Cohen. It was like a ghost town. Not a soul was there. According to the sign out front, the restaurant was open every day from noon on, and here we were, ten past one, and the place was closed. There was no indication that special holiday hours would be in effect; so we did what anyone in that situation would do. We stared. We stared and stared and stared as if somehow we’d telepathically generate a hostess who would open the front door and announce that the restaurant was indeed serving lunch and we were the first customers. Unfortunately, this strategy yielded nothing. Nevertheless, we decided that maybe the restaurant was closed for lunch but would be open for dinner, thus giving all their employees ample time away from work to be with their families.
With our Chinese lunch plans dashed, we headed to the only establishment open: The Standard Hotel. The good news was that it was about seventy-two degrees out; so sitting poolside while munching on some sandwiches and calamari wasn’t a terribly arduous experience. But as far as remedying our desire for Chinese food, it certainly was no great shakes, as they say.
The Standard on Christmas day.
Luckily it was a beautiful day to sit outside and maintain hope that there’d be good Chinese food available for dinner.
Flash forward to six o’clock. Dinner time. It was now or never for Chinese food. Jash and I piled into the Camry again and drove back to Fairfax, convinced that Genghis would now be welcoming us with open, egg roll bearing arms. Once again, however, we were greeted with absolute desolation. The restaurant was pitch black and empty, the effect of which was made harsher by the dark night. Whereas we were hopeful in the afternoon, now we were just pissed.
HOW DOES A CHINESE RESTAURANT NAMED GENGHIS COHEN STAY CLOSED ON CHRISTMAS?
First of all, half the name implies Jewish ownership. It’s just not right. You can’t tease us with that and then not follow through. It’s like having a place called “Dr. Morechai Liebowitz’s 24-Hour Kosher Buffet” closed on Easter.
Second of all, it’s not like we were in the middle of some 45 person town in rural Montana. We were in Los Angeles! The Jewish capital of the West Coast!! And we were on Fairfax Ave, no less!
Point is, no Chinese restaurant with “Cohen” in its name can be closed on Christmas in a Jewish neighborhood of a stereotypically Jewishy city. IT’S JUST NOT ALLOWED.
Nevertheless, it didn’t matter how angry we were. We still needed Chinese food. Not a problem, we thought. There will be plenty of other options. I decided to drive down to Melrose Avenue to a place called Mao’s Kitchen. It had received solid reviews from a variety of sources, and with a name like “Mao’s Kitchen,” I felt the odds would be in our favor for a successful dining experience. After all, isn’t Mao synonymous with communism, and isn’t communism synonymous with religious suppression? Surely Chairman Mao would never think to have a restaurant with his namesake closed for some holiday that was both religious AND capitalistic.
Well, the frustration continued. Mao’s Kitchen was empty, and unless all its workers had been shipped off to some sort of reprogramming camp, I feared that they too, like Genghis Cohen, were betraying their establishment’s unspoken promise to the public.
Our Chinese options were dwindling quickly. On the one hand, we could have trekked out to East Los Angeles and found a plethora of authentic, delicious Chinese dining, but that would have required a drive that neither of us were willing to endure. We just wanted some basic, suburban Chinese (but not, dare I say, P.F. Chang’s, if that’s what you were thinking).
This mandate kick-started a small odyssey that took us from Melrose to Beverly Hills and back, and because we were hungry and not thinking clearly, we probably missed some obvious choices. We checked in on Kung Pao Bistro first, and that restaurant was surprisingly open, but there were tons of people crammed in there (take heed, Genghis and Mao). Plus, while I used to be a big Kung Pao Bistro booster, the quality has declined recently, and we weren’t sure it would be worth the wait. We then drove to Chin Chin, which is certainly not my favorite option, but that restaurant was also closed. Then I remembered a Chinese restaurant in Beverly Hills that I had liked: The Mandarin. Hopefully that would be open — after all, Beverly Hills is where my people tend to be most concentrated. Sadly, The Mandarin doesn’t even exist anymore. The only place open in the area appeared to be Xi’an, which was entirely too swanky for our needs.
Needless to say, with tails between our legs, we had to return to Kung Pao Bistro. We were told by the staff that the wait would be 40 minutes unless we ordered take-out, which would cut the wait down to ten minutes. Sadly, we opted for the latter option, which really took all the fun out of eating Chinese on Christmas anyway. After all, the whole point was to eat OUT.
Our reluctant provider of a Christmas dinner (sans egg rolls)
Well, we stood there and waited, which was annoying because there were several open tables that we could have simply sat at had the restaurant been organized. However, they weren’t, and in a nice bit of self-awareness, they even posted a sign on the door essentially saying that if there were open tables, the wait would STILL be 40 minutes; so, um, chillax.
Translation: “Our policy makes NO SENSE.”
After about twenty-five minutes of waiting (I guess we could have stuck it out a little longer for a table after all), we finally got our food and headed back to my apartment for our grand meal, which looked something like this:
Can you say coal in the Christmas stocking?
The food was okay, at best. We split an order of cream cheese wantons, which are pretty hard to screw up. They tasted perfectly fine and constituted the high point of the meal. My entree of Orange Chicken was average — not particularly bad, but unfortunately, not particularly good either. In the past, this dish shone at Kung Pao Bistro, but now the orange flavor has become muted and forgettable. Blah. Jash ordered the curiously named Robot Chicken as his entree, and when I asked him how it was, he merely shrugged and noted, “Well, I’m not hungry anymore; so I guess that’s good.” An uninspiring end to a promising dinner quest.
Needless to say, Genghis Cohen loses major East Coast cred for its shoddy Holiday hours, but like an abused lover with low self-esteem, I know I’ll be going back (because I still adore it). Rest assured that next year, I will diligently do my research before going on another fruitless quest for egg rolls and the like.
Anyone else have similar experiences?