I broke up with one of my favourite restaurants yesterday. I’d been collecting photos to write a positive review of this place, but what I already have will do for a farewell.
As Sean and I don’t eat out super often, there are few restaurants where we would be considered “regulars”. The one place we’ve found ourselves going back to again and again, and has in recent weeks become our Sunday night ritual, is a small Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) restaurant at the back gate of East China Normal University, a pleasant 15-minute walk/5-minute bike ride from our apartment.
Known for its jiaozi (dumplings) and other solid, cheap eats, Dong Bei Ren Jia (东北人家, a very generic name) is somewhat of an institution among nearby residents as well as current and former students at the university. Sean and I have written about it on CNNGo and I gushed about its caramelized sugar-coated sweet potato fritters in a long-ago post.
It used to be a tired, grubby place with a dozen or so tables and way too many bored-looking employees, but early this year, after its usual month-long Chinese New Year hiatus, half the space was turned into a fried chicken stall, while the other half was given a makeover, its staff and menu — including the fritters — trimmed and delivery made available.
We loved it for its homestyle dishes, cheap and delicious jiaozi (including 2 vegetarian varieties), and its reliable presence in the midst of constant change along the back gate food street. I’ve taken out-of-towners here despite its unimpressive decor. We had been devastated to hear a few months back that the food street was going to be demolished, but had been elated to learn the closures wouldn’t reach this restaurant. While its laoban (owner), a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who barks and spends most of the time reading a magazine at the cashier, is less than charming, we grew to appreciate her gruff manner as part of the experience. On one of our recent visits, she asked if we were vegetarian, and that’s when I thought, awesome, she recognizes us now! and began to get that fuzzy feeling of home: This had become our Chinese neighbourhood diner.
This past Sunday, we decided to try out their delivery since I wanted to make a cold appetizer at home. As free delivery requires a minimum 30 RMB order, we ordered 4 dozen jiaozi — 2 dozen chive & egg, 2 dozen zucchini & egg — for 32 RMB. The dumplings arrived, hit the spot; our love for the place grew.
Then yesterday. I’d taken the day off to rest up at home, and we were both in the mood for jiaozi even though we’d had them just three days ago. I called up the place at 11:30am, but was told that they couldn’t deliver to our apartment since the laoban‘s son wasn’t around. Sean agreed to bike over to pick up the 4 dozen dumplings, so I told them fine, I’ll come pick it up.
Ten minutes after Sean left for the restaurant, I got a call from the laoban, demanding to know why I wasn’t there yet and if I was coming ’cause the food was getting cold. Puzzled, since I’d assumed Sean would’ve arrived by then, I told them “Will be there soon”. I called Sean immediately after hanging up, and he said he’d just picked up the food. Cool.
A few minutes later, I got a call back from the woman, who immediately started yelling at me. She asked if I’d sent a “foreign student” to come pick up the dumplings, and I said yes. Why didn’t you tell me on the phone?? You didn’t say you were sending a foreigner to get your food so we made another 4 dozen for you. Now we have 4 dozen jiaozi that’s going to go to waste. What kind of customer are you??
A bit confused — how did she not have a clue that Sean was there to pick up the food I’d ordered? — and not knowing how to fight back, I took a deep breath and simply said Sorry.
Which unleashed another round of barking that made it seem as if I had tricked her into cooking a duplicate order. Feeling personally attacked at this point, I told her her attitude was bad and I was never going back there again… to which she snapped, It doesn’t matter if you don’t come back. The point is you made me waste all this food.
To that, I suggested that she serve the food to someone else, and hung up.
This was outrageous. How likely was it that two different parties had placed the exact same (vegetarian, no less) order at the same time? She had misinterpreted the situation, given him “my” dumplings that were ready to go, then called me to ask if I was still coming before I knew Sean had already been there and left, and when I told her “will be there soon” had started making another batch. A communication mix-up that could’ve easily been avoided if she’d checked with Sean — or asked me straight out if I’d sent a “foreign student” — before doing anything with the food. (Sean told me later that he had told her “I ordered” not “I want to order” so it wasn’t even a language problem.)
And really, what kind of business would call a regular customer (I’m sure she figured out who were were) and scream at them, and then basically tell them I don’t want your business? Maybe I hadn’t been clear on the phone, but it was she who made the mistake, so why not swallow the loss rather than end the relationship over 32 RMB (which really could be salvaged if she fed the food to someone else)?
Perhaps that — her lack of business and common sense — is the reason half her store got taken over by a fried chicken take-out. Dongbei diner, it was lovely getting dinner with you, but you’ve given me no choice but to look elsewhere for my dumpling fix. I’ve ripped up your delivery menu and deleted your number so I won’t be tempted to call, and won’t be coming ’round to your parts again ’til I’m in love with another.
Bulldozer, come get ’em if you want.