This is how the kitchen boys’ nights out end: We stagger through double doors, sit at the same greasy linoleum table, order in invented Chinese dialects. This is how we punctuate our whisky-soaked nights on the town: curry beef stew noodle with chow fun, cha jung mein with hot oil and hock kian shrimp noodle with Cantonese noodle. All of them extra spicy. And finally, after all the steamy bowls: heads thrown back in croons of gustation, laughter with our bellies hoisted in the air, heads soaking in lingering fantasies of MSG-enriched noodle soup. We clap one another on the back and tell ourselves, again, that yes — we’ll make a habit of coming back.
And we did. For us, late-night slurps became a fixture. Sure, as we left the kitchen, sometimes I would get a text — one of us was bringing along some little shrimp from somewhere else. New waitstaff, valued customer, new girlfriend, new girlfriend of a visiting cousin (or something) and they would never understand. It’s not authentic. Dude. The owners are mean. Dude. They only have two stars on Yelp. Duuude. Then we would drag them down Broadway, past the fancy Frenchy Belgium Maison de la Casa House, sit them down and order for them, without a glance at the menu. Curry beef stew noodle with chow fun, cha jung mein with hot oil, and hock kian shrimp noodle with Cantonese noodle. All of them spicy.
Sure, the establishment is easy to hate. Their dumpling skin is thick as leather. Most of the food is bland. Service is a circus: It’s caught between the unresponsive mother and her eleven-year-old son, haughty, self-indulgent and gnawing at your heels like a hairless dog. The bathroom is always locked. The walls are covered in stock photos, printed on budget printer paper. The grey floor tiles are always greased with spilled lo mein.
But, still, we always come back.
Because Aristotle said that excellence comes of habit. Because Kierkegaard wrote that selfhood appears only through repetition. Because Aquinas’s virtues follow from habit. Because Hume’s model of mind is rooted in repetition. Because for Bourdieu, habit and regularity is the basis of our very social construct.
But also because there is something to be said for being a regular — for coming back again and again, even if you’re coming back to everyone’s favorite worst restaurant. To be a regular is to get in sync with a restaurant’s rhythm. Returning to face the same bowl of noodles, the same wait staff and the same locked bathroom door isn’t unlike returning again and again to a painting. Repeated aesthetic experiences allow for the comfort necessary to see a certain beauty. A Mondrian canvas won’t yield to you in a single sitting. Nor will hock kian shrimp noodle.
Regularity encourages thoughtful interaction with the noodles themselves — that is, spend a few moments tasting. Let that rich braised brisket melt away. Slurp, savor those noodles anointed in sweet oils. Let loose your longing.
Nowadays we like to ride on trends. We hop from restaurant to restaurant, order the dish recommended by Yelp, snap a photo, then move on to somewhere and something else with someone else. But still, the kitchen boys come back to the restaurant on Elm Street. Maybe regularity does indeed breed a certain comfort. Comfort to hate, comfort to love. Comfort to sit at the same table, to mirror the obtrusive service with your own rambunctiousness, and of course, comfort to dig through the menu, make it past the bastardized Chinese staples and unlock its hidden delights: Curry beef stew noodle with chow fun, cha jung mein with hot oil and hock kian shrimp noodle with Cantonese noodle. All of them spicy.