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End of Dinner

Over spring break, we took an overnight trip to Boston, partly to visit my high school buddy Brian and his wife, Nattie, but mostly for the food.

We went overnight in large part because I wanted to visit two Chinese restaurants of my college days: Mary Chung’s, which Eileene has tried and loves, and King Fung Garden (informally known as Brezhnev’s), which she hadn’t. Also, Toscanini’s ice cream.

What a disappointment Brezhnev’s was. It’s still a hole-in-the-wall, built into a converted gas station, about five tables packed together. But nothing else of what I remember remains. Much of the charm of Brezhnev’s was its seediness. Half the menu was pinned to the wall, hand-written only in Chinese, and the student clientele had to learn by trial-and-error, word of mouth, and pantomime conversations with Chinese patrons what dishes to order. The seats were shredded and duct-taped over. You could just barely see the cook rummaging up your ingredients, because he had no space in which to work. The waitress didn’t really speak English. For many years, there wasn’t even a sign out front, which is how the restaurant got an unofficial name. The board of health frequently shut the place down. But the prices couldn’t be beat, the food was plentiful and very good (hard-to-find Shanxi cuisine), and the seaminess contributed to a sense of adventure, a sense that you were getting the real gastronomic deal.

That’s gone now. The restaurant is still run-down, but not to the point of gaining a horrible charm; it’s just run-down. There’s fresh paint and decorations on the walls. The menu is wholly bilingual, and the signature dishes have been replaced by Americanized entrees to match. The beef lo mein, once very nearly the reason to go at all, is no longer gloriously greasy and rich but spongy and dry. The potstickers (called Peking ravioli in Boston) obviously came from a crate. The owner/cook, who resembled Leonid Brezhnev and thus gave the place its informal nickname is gone, and with him both ambiance and food, and a little piece of my soul, as well.

Mary Chung’s was its usual treat, but my swan la chow shou came with a side order of memento mori. I first visited in 1986. Twenty-five years is a long time in the restaurant business, and I’m both surprised and grateful that it’s still there. But not forever.

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