"And then he ordered the fried rice."
The story goes like this. Last year I met a fellow at a party, and he asked me for my number. He was friendly and funny, and mentioned that he liked John Rawls, a political theorist I studied in school. I figured anyone who liked Rawls and actually wanted to talk about distributive justice was someone I'd want to get to know better. Also...he was easy on the eyes, and I am not entirely immune to that sort of thing.
We arranged to meet at New Hon Won, a Cantonese joint on Canal Street right outside the subway. You've probably passed it a million times without bothering to go in. I think a lot of places by the subway must suffer from this fate. The location must be convenient but not too convenient. (It's like dating in general—you have to be available, but not too available.)
I really like New Hon Won. Right when you walk in, the place smells like fresh rice noodles, very floral and starchy. Like a lot of places in the area, there are roast ducks hanging in the window and terse waiters with the uncanny ability to assist you only when you really need something, like water or a napkin, and not to ask you silly questions, like "How is everything?" They don't care how everything is and besides, everything at one of these Chinatown joints is usually pretty decent, if not good or even great.
Actually, there is one great thing about New Hon Won: their rice noodles. I have been eating the rice noodles there for years now, and I have never been served one that's soggy, underdone, overcooked, or somehow carelessly prepared. The storefront advertises fresh rice noodles and rolls, and by lunchtime they're often sold out. I'm not saying that Hon Won's noodles are the best noodles I've ever had, but I would make the claim that for five to six dollars, they couldn't make their product much better. And I like their soup noodles as well as their stir-fried noodles, the latter which are marvelously charred.
He was twenty minutes late. I sat there, waiting nervously for my handsome Rawls-loving date to arrive. When he did, he apologized profusely for being late, and had a good excuse, and was thusly pardoned.
Then we started browsing the menu, and I said, "I really, really recommend the rice noodles. I think they make them as good as here as anywhere in Chinatown, and they're reliably good, too."
He nodded encouragingly, and we continued to peruse the menu. Just as I was about to ask him if there were a couple of items that looked good to him, on the presumption that whatever we ordered, we would share, the waiter showed up.
"Ready to order?" he said, and my date nodded, saying, "Ladies, first."
Well, I would have liked to come up with a game plan beforehand, but when put on the spot, I got what I always get at New Hon Won, the noodle soup with roast duck. The noodles come in a soothing poultry broth spiked with white pepper, and the roast duck is tender, the meat practically flaking off the bone, as though it were smoked.
The waiter asked me what noodle I wanted (you can get rice noodles, egg noodles, wheat noodles, and so on) and I said, "The rice noodles."
"The flat kind?" the waiter asked, and I nodded.
Then my date said, "I'll have the fried rice."
My neck snapped a little as I looked up from my menu, in what I hoped was not a look of utter surprise, and underneath that, disappointment.
Now why would he get the fried rice if I had just mentioned that the rice noodles here were excellent? It'd be one thing if he didn't like noodles, but he had said nothing of the kind. Was he just in the mood for rice, or was he an impassioned lover of rice to the exclusion of noodles? Already I was imagining the domestic rifts that might arise around dinnertime if all I wanted to do was eat noodles, and all he wanted was rice. How could our 2.5 children suffer such parental discordance? It would never work.
Our respective meals arrived.
I picked up a noodle with my chopsticks and held it out to him. "Want to try my noodles?" I said.
He shook his head. Then,even though I looked longingly at his plate, he did not reciprocate by asking me if I wanted to try his stir-fried rice.
For the rest of the meal, we stuck to our dishes, and I tried to focus all my attention on slurping my noodles so as not to fish for things to talk about.
Because—and this was the final straw, the deal breaker for me—at some point during the course of the meal, I had said, "So which one of Rawls's books do you find the most convincing?"
He looked up at me, his spoonful of fried rice suspended between his plate and his mouth. "Who?"
"You know," I said, this time less sure of myself. "The political theorist, John Rawls, that you said you liked? Writer of Theory of Justice, the game-changer on notions of fairness and equality and so forth...." I trailed off at the end and cleared my throat. Gosh, it was hot in there. And I was so thirsty. I took another sip of my water, then another.
After what seemed like many minutes, but was probably no more than ten seconds, he laughed, a look of recognition and remembrance on his face. "No, no, I said, John Rawling."
"Oh," I said. "Who's he?"
"An English boxing commentator. I'm really into boxing."
"Oh," I said again, and looked back down at my bowl of rice noodles, which were, as usual, quite good. A good rice noodle has a certain spring and slickness to it, and tastes mildly sweet, too.
I don't remember much else following that exchange. Only that at the end of the meal, he was a gentleman, and insisted on paying for dinner, and walked me to the subway. When we parted, he kissed me on the cheek and said he'd call, and I said, of course, looking forward to it, and so on.
Of course I never heard from him again, and I can't help but wonder if the fault was mine. Here he was, a handsome and personable guy with an interest in boxing, which I even enjoy watching from time to time, and still I could be so silly as to hold against him, the trivial matter of his not taking my noodle recommendation. What kind of a woman am I?
A lonely one, that's what.
But the thing is, I just really wanted to find a man who would want to try my noodle, who wanted noodles himself, and would upon, eating them, slurp as loudly and as heartily as I do. More than that, I wanted to be wooed. Even if he didn't want to eat noodles, I wanted him to take my recommendation, as a sign of good faith, a sign that he trusted me to choose his meal.
Is that too much to ask? Probably, but I've always been a romantic when it comes to noodles.
New Hon Won
244 Canal Street, New York, NY 10013 (map)