Fast food is fast. Comfort food comforts. And dollar food ... costs a dollar.
It feeds down-and-outers: those on fixed incomes, those lacking kitchen privileges at home, those lacking homes. This is a culinary demimonde. In price lists stenciled across storefront windows and often in its purveyors' names, dollar food is defined first and foremost by a price not just low by modern urban standards but baroquely low.
Other types of dining establishment lure clientele by touting novelty. Quality. Quantity. But dollar restaurants — which, these days, tend to veer into the $1.75-to-$4 range — sidestep those competitions, shouting instead from the sidelines, Hey, it's cheap.
Sometimes, cheap matters most.
In a conspicuous-consumption era when thriftiness is more joke-fodder than virtue, dollar restaurants are all too easy to dismiss. Your suede-shod swell nibbling a $9 oyster starter (with champagne and habanero mignonette, naturellement) and a $16.50 salmon lunch at Berkeley's luxe Downtown restaurant might as well inhabit a different planet from the scarf-throated anarchist youth and patchy-trousered, down-jacketed graybeard lingering over Mongolian beef, dry-fried ribs, and crab puffs at New China Express on the next block. Downtown's windows look across Shattuck Avenue to Little Mandarin, where a very large man tucks into fried fish, Singapore noodles, and sweet-and-sour chicken underneath a framed Great Wall of China jigsaw puzzle, and a teenage couple with a plate of egg rolls — fifty cents each — braves an outdoor table in the cold.
Humility and artless honesty pervades these places. Red lanterns and gouged lino floors hark back to the unpretentious neighborhood Cantonese mom-and-pops of the 1960s, before the mid-'80s overhaul — that Reaganizing of the Asian-restaurant scene — that jazzed everything up with mirrored walls and fusion food and wine lists. In Little Mandarin and New China Express, lone servers wait silently behind steam tables as, in unseen kitchens, unseen cleavers go whock-whock. For elastic minutes, patrons ponder their options under placards proclaiming Fried Rice Plus One Item, $3.50. About as many noodles as would fill a teacup really cost a buck. Outside, traffic whirrs past. Time softens in this warm near-silence. No pressure, no expectations.
Little Mandarin's spicy eggplant is velvety, garlicky, rich. Its pea-pocked egg foo yong is hearty. Its chow fun is compellingly chewy, and the Oreo-sized mushrooms in its black-mushroom tofu are plump, exuding juice. It's quick, but real — almost identical to meals I have eaten in China and Hong Kong. New China Express' tofu-vegetables is thick with golden-fried beancurd cubes and crinkle-cut cucumber, a cool-bitter resourceful touch. Its cabbage-stuffed egg roll is to be reckoned with, almost a meal in itself. Peking Express, two blocks away, is the most popular because it's between Berkeley High and BART, but Tuffy found its sautéed spinach unpleasantly fishy and its spicy tofu incendiarily harsh. Chinese Express, closer to UCB, serves satisfying 75-cent curried egg rolls and vividly fresh Szechuan tofu.
This is the other fast food, without the free toys and the insincere smiles.
Nor are the floors always gouged. As members of the family that owns Khana Peena on Solano Avenue (and formerly on Oxford Street), Vikas and Deepak Aggarwal wanted to upgrade the dollar-restaurant look and feel. The brothers' Dollar Curry House — in Khana Peena's former Oxford Street digs, facing UC Berkeley's West Gate — is a two-month-old, split-level, Bollywood-soundtrack-pulsing, beer-on-tap, high-energy paisley vision in jade-green, aquamarine, and scarlet velveteen. A 900-pound fiberglass Ganesha extrudes from one downstairs wall; the upstairs loft boasts a flowery mural. A polka-dot array of tiny round mirrors and actual Indian coins are embedded in the plaster near the entryway. Four types of appetizer, two soups, three salads, three breads, ten vegetarian entrées, three desserts, and drinks including beer on tap are $1 each. Twelve chicken and lamb entrees are $1.99 — and even that seems barely possible.
"I've calculated it out," insists Vikas Aggarwal, who arrived in Berkeley from the Punjab fifteen years ago when he was eighteen. Working first at his family's Mother India restaurant on University Avenue, he bolstered his skills at Burger King and McDonald's, "doing everything from dishwashing to cooking to waiting tables to management." He says he got the dollar-restaurant idea from watching diners in Indian buffets.
"I watched how much they take, how many times they go back for more — how many spoonfuls." He figured in "the costs of food, rent, staff, and I realized we could do it — fast-food style," he says unapologetically. "It's better than a buffet, because you can choose what you want instead of having it pre-chosen, and it's fresh."
On a Friday night, the place was packed. Students roared at long tables, which along with the pounding music made it hard to think. Other diners munched samosas and kormas, trading sly I-got-a-bargain smiles: couples with and without kids, an activist quartet stamping envelopes, two young men talking intently on cell phones as their pit bull sat, tied to a tree, outside.
You order off a menu, then collect your tray when your number is called. One dish, with rice, is almost — but not quite — enough.
Nearly all the dishes are listed on the menu not by their Indian names but by rudimentary English ones, e.g. "Spinach Potato" and "Beans." Aggarwal says this is deliberate, "because we want everyone to order easily — and some people can't pronounce the Indian names." The vegetables were large-cut and fresh in our Potato Cauliflower, Spinach Potato, Potato Peas, and Mixed Vege, their sauces clearly prepared with care, yet all quite similar and notably not-hot.
"This is the mildest curry I've ever had that I didn't make myself," Marji mused. She found the flesh in her Lamb Spinach "very, very tender," with a slow-cookerish sweetness. By contrast, her Chicken Tandoori Tika Kebab was "dry as cardboard and completely overcooked," Marji sniffed. "I would never come close to ordering this again." The Potato Corn Salad sported hominy, but was bland. We had better luck with the earthy black-lentil dal, chewy garlic and sesame nan, aromatic rice pudding, and the honey-soaked fried paneer-cheeseball called gulab jamon. The Aggarwals plan to expand their menu, eventually serving thirty different types of housemade nan.
Some might not deign to sample dollar food. Someday in this dog-eat-dog world they might not have a choice. And who will have the last laugh then?
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