Trippin’ on the Fu Man Choo Choo
By Stacy Davies
Since it would be much too easy to make an Orient Express joke about a Chinese restaurant housed inside real train cars on real tracks, I opted for the much cleverer headline above. Still, there’s something appropriate about likening this out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere bistro to an Agatha Christie murder mystery—once you climb aboard, the sense that hidden intrigue and scandalous secrets surround you is more abundant than the Chinese paper lanterns that hang from the train’s crimson interior.
In fact, it pretty much feels as if you’ve stepped back in time, or perhaps stepped out of time. The framed reproduction of the front page from a 1915 edition of the L.A. Times that announces the sinking of the Lusitania—and the meager survivor list—helps, and, really, if Rod Serling suddenly sauntered up to the host station to seat you, it would all make perfect 4th dimension sense. You have now entered Romoland, you see, and what a Romoland is, only those who have been there can say.
Of course, once I embarked, Mr. Serling did not slide up to seat me, but the next best thing did: a Chinese head waiter wearing only half a pair of glasses—a left lens and wire to the nose bridge and no more. If only ominous orchestral music had begun to play; instead, pop songs from an Asian Barry Manilow floated from the speakers above my head, and this really was better, if you think about it. The man led me down the narrow car past a smattering of other guests ensconced in black leather and gold buttoned booths, and seated me with such affection (and I’m being polite) that I thought for a moment he might whisper some enigmatic phrase into my ear, much like a human fortune cookie or Sphinxian Miss Marple riddle.
I ordered the orange chicken lunch combo ($6.25) and the waiter beamed; this was his personal favorite dish, he told me and he’d just tried, to no avail, to convince the woman two booths down to order it; she preferred the lemon chicken. He then swung around her direction and called out: “See? Orange chicken best! I told you!” She was not amused. But I was.
In short order, he brought out my tea and crispy noodles appetizer with sweet and mustard sauces, and I realized after slathering a noodle in the yellow sauce that this “dip” is somewhat akin to wasabi—my Chinese food knowledge had clearly been truncated by years of Japanese cuisine, but at least my sinuses were now clear. Egg flower soup and a fresh, succulent egg roll on the side followed.
I dove into the spread, and strangely, found myself unable to stop staring outside of my train car window. We weren’t moving, of course, and my view was only of another car alongside us and a small patch of shrubbery between, and yet, as Confucius as my witness, I saw villages, fields, lakes and gaggles of geese being chased by smudge-faced children outside that window. I even began to feel as if I were on an adventure to destinations unknown, somewhere fascinating, somewhere life-altering.
My orange chicken arrived in a portion that was really enough for two people. Regardless, I had no trouble filling up on behalf of my invisible companion, and assured the waiter that it was, as he’d promised, quite excellent. Soon after, the requisite fortune cookie was dropped off. Now, while I loathe the taste of fortune cookies, I lurve the prophetic papers inside. I broke it open with haste and was speechless: no fortune! I wanted to ask my half-spectacled friend what it meant, but he had vanished. I stared back out of my window for answers: Will I have no future? Will I never leave this train again? Was my “Next Stop, Willoughby”? Supposedly, having no fortune is boo chin—no luck—and I was right next door to Hemet. This could be very bad, indeed, and yet, I knew from my momentary supernatural excursion that normal rules and superstitions no longer applied to me. I was a passenger now, on a strange journey into the unknown, my slate wiped clean, my destiny propelled by happenstance and karma. There would be no barriers and no diversion of my transcendental transcontinental transformation! Then again, it may have just been that crazy mustard sauce.
Chinese Bistro, 28380 US Highway 74, Romoland, (951) 928-3837. Sun-Thurs 11AM-9PM, Fri-Sat 11AM-9:30PM. MC, V.