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18 Arhans, and Others like It

My friend Susan has been a vegan for decades.  She’s invested a lot of time finding the healthiest, tastiest vegan cuisine in New York.  When I was in the City, sometimes I’d come along for the sampling of cuisine, sometimes not.

Knowing about my burgeoning interest in Buddhist Meditation, she brought me along one day in 2004 during one of my mad-dash visits to New York from the Pacific Northwest.  She said there was a place I had to try, that it was run by a Buddhist Nun.

My expectations were that she would probably be bald, wearing flowing robes, and under some vow of silence.  I thought I’d probably not eat anything; instead I’d just take in the scenery.  Though I loved the food at the retreat center in Washington State, I suspected this restaurant might be a little weird.IMG_1317

We walked into the little place located at 227 Centre St.  Centre Street was not Lafayette, a street I was a little more familiar with.  I had seen this area before though; right across 18 Arhans sat the looming Police Building, a place where about 110 years before Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt would sometimes sneak out at night to spy on the evening beat cops.

I love the history in all those non-descript old New York blocks.

Teddy's sinister old stomping grounds

Teddy’s sinister old stomping grounds

Inside, the restaurant was little more than a to-go joint, though it had a few tables and some stools lined up along a wall.  In the back it had what appeared to be a shrine and a big-ass sword.  Now that was interesting, maybe she was a different kind of nun.  A bowl containing a couple of oranges sat on the small shrine table.  A sign on the counter said “no chopsticks and no bathrooms.”

A tiny little lady emerged from to kitchen to the counter area.  She wore flowing robes and had a shaved head.  Haha, yes!

Then she spoke, “Oh, hello Susan, who’s your friend?”  Well, I thought, two out of three guesses wasn’t that bad.

Susan introduced me, this woman spoke as softly as Susan and I had to really pay attention.  It was then that I thought, “Paying attention is what I’m trying to do as part of my Buddhist practice.  It’s what it’s there for.”  I realized in my reverie I kind of missed what they were talking about, so I grabbed a menu.  The menu said, “Vegetarian comfort food.”

Shrine in 18 Arhans

Shrine in 18 Arhans

In those days (and these), my diet went through weird episodes of short term vegetarianism or veganism followed by consecutive late night trips to the Jack in the Box on 85th and Aurora back home.  That day I was feeling on the junky side; but the menu looked pretty promising.  Almost everything on it was $5.

Susan recommended the scallion pancake and I added an order of fried rice, the latter being my safe go to order for any new Chinese Restaurant.  We sat at the table and waited a while.  Susan told me she’d picked the place out because of its fresh vegetables and the fact that they only prepared the food when it was ordered.  So we might be waiting a bit.

The lady came out again, I’d missed her name. As I whispered the question to Susan, she looked up and said, “E.T., Bill is from Seattle!”

E.T.?!

She came over to me, seeing my quizzical look and said something like, “E.T., phone home!  Yes, that E.T.”

I found out later that her name was Shi and I never did ask her about E.T.  I found the name (as well as the restaurant) delightful though.  E.T. brought our food out; the portions were enormous, and delicious.  I even deferred my usual tendency to dump a quart of soy sauce on the rice; it actually tasted better without it.  And the scallion pancake was amazing, it was so….scalliony.

And to think, today I make fun of those food FB pics.

And to think, today I make fun of those food FB pics.

I knew now why this place was in Susan’s rotation.  I made a point to add it to mine during every visit back from Seattle.  I ate there again before I headed home.

Six months later I again visited New York.  I was glad to see 18 Arhans was still there.  Because you never knew in New York, it really is a landlord’s town, a place of usually skyrocketing rents.  I’d already been disappointed to see that California Tacqueria in Brooklyn had closed for good.  That one hurt, man, I already missed those hog leg sized mission burritos.  It sucked seeing things just disappear; that place had been in my own restaurant rotation when I could afford it back when I lived in Brooklyn, going back to ‘91.

The late great California Tacqueria, 7th Avenue, Brooklyn

The late great California Tacqueria, 7th Avenue, Brooklyn

Dealing with loss, some great things and some small; I figured, “Well, isn’t that what Buddhism is for?”

Susan and I walked back in one evening, it was winter now.  E.T. said hello and came out from behind the counter, same bald head but a different robe.  She said, “And you’re her friend from Seattle!”  Hearing that really made my day.  I imagined myself as being a step closer to being bi-coastal, people knew me on both sides now, I felt kind of important.

This Buddhist nun was really pumping up my ego.

I talked to her quite a bit, bragging really, about the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, the group I sat with back home.  The gist of my commentary was that E.T. and I had quite a bit in common.  I started to view her as a respected elder.  She told me a little bit about Chinese Pure Land Buddhism and the reasoning behind the non-harming precept (hence the vegan restaurant). After chatting I ordered and took my time walking around, looking at the décor.

There was a statue of a menacing warlike figure; E.T. told me it was Guan Gong. This likely explained the sword.  Like every other time I walked in there the next 2 years, there was fruit or some food offering in the altar bowl.  I quietly hoped it wasn’t E.T. filling it every time – that others might come in to add to it too.

IMG_0439Five dollars later (they only accepted cash, another detail of the simplicity of their operation), I had another great meal, the mock chicken nuggets.  And the scallion pancake, yeah, always the scallion pancake.

I came back in early ’05; I walked into 18 Arhans by myself and this time E.T. remembered my name and where I was from.  She looked delighted to see me, but then again she was always delighted.  I was very pleased.  I was a recognized regular in a restaurant 2000 miles from home.

I breathed in deeply, checking in mindfully with my senses while bringing myself fully into the moment.

I probably ate there four times during that visit, always getting something different with the scallion pancake.

Photo May 13, 5 25 33 PMI came back several times in ’06, I noticed another of my restaurants had gone away but old 18 was still there.  I noticed that the menu items had all gone up from $5 to $5.50.  It hardly mattered, financially, but there was something about it that gave me the sense the place might be a little vulnerable.  The food and the friendliness was always the same, though.  On one visit I met Nancy, who did most of the cooking.

It turned out it was vulnerable, in peril in fact.  In early ’07 I walked in there during what turned out to be the last month of business.  E.T. was selling a few items; I bought a glow-in-the-dark statue of 3 Chinese elders.  E.T.’s nephew sold me an umbrella.  He told me there was another similar restaurant up near Madison Square Garden and E.T. was likely headed there.

In nearly the same month, The Cup (or just Cup) restaurant out in Queens went under.  My brother and his wife really liked that one.  Comfort Diner in Manhattan had gone too.  Both were known for their unpretentious yet tasty food.  My sister in law called it “non-bullshitty,” and I knew what she meant.  My brother, his wife, me; we all miss these places we’ve been devoted to.

Photo May 13, 5 24 31 PMWhether they live many years or just a few, every restaurant has its devotees.  Because of that – the place, when it goes away, deserves to be remembered for the happiness it brought its patrons.  I guess that’s why I always take delivery menus from restaurants I love and seem to hold on to them forever.  Maybe my meditation teacher would call that clinging, but there’s always a place for happy nostalgia.  It just feels good.

Over the years I’d taken a few pictures of 18 Arhans, though I grew to regard it more as a temple than a hole in the wall on the edge of Chinatown.  That made me sneaky with the camera, made me speak a little lower, move a tad more slowly.  That hole in the wall was an antidote to New York’s rushrush ethos.

During my last meal I just took it all in, finishing and popping my paper plate into the recycling. I said goodbye to E.T. and thanked her for remembering me every time I came in.  I thanked her for being so welcoming to everyone who came in for their food.  I strode out, with my newly acquired tchotchke and umbrella in hand on that sunny day.  I really felt attached to the place, but I didn’t let E.T. know it; after all, weren’t we both really in the business of non-attachment?

5 replies
  1. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    Oh man! This one was almost a tearjerker. Now I’m thinking of my favorite dead restaurant(s?). To this very day I curse the second owner of The Globe, on Capitol Hill, who ran that place into the ground in ’07. I should probably get over it but I just…can’t.

    Reply
    • Bill Hardesty
      Bill Hardesty says:

      Hey Ryan, I really miss the Longshoreman’s Daughter in Fremont. It became Heart Glass Nest or something like that. If anything happened to Snappy Dragon you’d hear my Klingon yell all the way out from Georgia!

      Reply
      • Ryan
        Ryan says:

        Longshoreman’s daughter was excellent! I miss it very much. Something about laziness and not paying the rent shut them down. I used to get hammered there after working pos graveyard with Sue. Every two weeks I’d go in at 7am and drink 3-4 double bloody marys. Food there was good, too, if my hazy memory serves me. I found out later that my ex, Olivia, actually worked some fill-in wait shifts there…her friend’s family er somethin.

        Reply
  2. T-rav
    T-rav says:

    Nothing better than a hole in the wall with great food and people that remember you and seem to care that you stopped by. Sounds like a great place to be.

    Reply

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