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[whitespace] David Wang
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Past Perfect: Chef David Wang has been cooking at Wing's, a Chinese stronghold in the heart of Japantown, for 25 years.

Wing's Of Desire

A walk up these creaking stairs takes patrons through 80 years of history and charm

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

I'VE ALWAYS LIKED the sign of Wing's Chinese restaurant, especially on misty nights when it glows along Jackson Street like a ghostly image out of Edgar Allan Poe. Once in 1973, and I remember the experience well, I thought I heard it speak. A bunch of us from San Jose State had just finished dinner and were walking down the street chomping on toothpicks. I turned around expecting to see somebody I knew standing there, but saw nothing except shadows cast from the old building--all in shades of red. Blood red.

That was then, and this is now and Wing's is still open, still casting red shadows, still full of mysterious sidebars and segues. The sign still hangs at the entrance like an old trouper that has been there a long, long time, through good weather and bad--some say--since it opened in 1920.

As I ascend the stairs, I'm always struck with the thought of how old this place really is--over 80 years, at least. The clapboards of the exterior are still intact; some beyond repair, but still there. I think of all the people who have dined here, who have walked up these steps to the exotic dining room with sequestered seating equipped with hanging beads and doorbells, and other miscellaneous peculiarities of a bygone era. Even the restrooms evoke a sense of cockeyed enchantment. The men's room has inordinately high ceilings and a window to nowhere, while the women's has very low ceilings and quarters close and narrow like a closet. Or is it the other way around?

I love restaurants like Wing's that have retained their character and charm and--despite an outdated kitchen and a host of inconsistencies--survived the fray of the brutal restaurant trade and held on to historic, atmospheric touches along the way. Like the doorbells in the sequestered seating areas: On a bet, one in our party pressed the silent button, and, to our amazement, our waitress appeared. After all these years, they remain in working order. For Wing's, it was just a routine call for service. For us, it was a thrill.

This most recent visit was like so many others. I took the steps leading into the place, one by one, listening to the creaks and groans of the old wood playing under the feet like forgotten music. Glimpses of the past jumped into my mind. I saw Big Norm Clark and his rosy face half-hidden in the steam of our beef and broccoli. I remembered all the noise he made that night and the waitress asking politely that we either pipe down or get out. Everything on the way in appeared faded and worn, just like it always has, and this drove home the point that Wing's doesn't change, or if changes have occurred, they've been woven beyond recognition into the tangles of this restaurant's long and colorful history.

We took our seats around a large round table with a lazy Susan at the center. Wine and beer was served--nothing special--and dinner began. Outside we could hear voices and footsteps echoing along the street. Just to make sure it wasn't that sign again, I peeked from the window, but saw nothing, not a soul, not a car, not a single movement. How strange. Wing's belongs in an old movie with gumshoes and low-brimmed hats and cigarette smoke drifting in dark alleyways.

As for the food, I offer a quote from my father who spoke candidly about the grub he served in his own restaurant. " It's not the best, but it's not the worst either." I never expect great culinary achievements to come from the kitchen of Wing's. The cooks attune to the basics, no more, no less. I know what I'm going to get here and never set my expectations beyond what I know the kitchen can produce. It would be unfair. I come here mostly for the atmosphere, and to taste food that doesn't demand much scrutiny. For best results, a family dinner comprised of standards like almond chicken, sweet and sour pork and fried rice are better than satisfactory.

This visit, we got underway with an order of sizzling rice soup ($4.75) in a clean, tasty broth and a round of moist tender dumplings--steamed, not fried--and served with customary hot pepper oil and vinegar.

Next, we enjoyed a lush rendering of Mu Shu Pork ($6.95)--a favorite of the house--skillfully turned out in traditional style with shredded vegetables and meat mixed with egg and served with pancakes and hoisin sauce. The generous portion was enough for two servings apiece, with a little left over for home.

Up to this point, Wing's earned good marks. It was after this that things got a little dicey with the food. The Happy Family ($8.95), considered the enduring specialty, proved an over-ambitious undertaking. It included chicken and beef, mushrooms and bamboo shoots and just about everything else available in the kitchen. " What are we supposed to taste here? " asked one of my guests after taking a forkful of the jumbled goods soaked in a starchy, nondescript sauce.

The Kung Pao Prawns ($9.25) weren't much better. This famous provincial specialty known for its fiery nature and deep smoky attributes took the low road here at Wing's. There was little flavor to speak off, let alone spice and hot pepper. The prawns were interred in leaden jackets, deep-fried beyond hope, and were served in a sauce that was again starchy, and as sweet as candy.

Green Pepper Beef ($6.75) came as a welcomed guest to our table. It was a simple dish full of tender, juicy meat in a mild sauce that did not intrude upon the ingredients as did the other two. We enjoyed this one very much, especially with sides of Black Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoots ($5.95) and Vegetarian Fried Rice ($5.25).

Making up for the average nature of the food is a staff brimming with joy and good nature. To sit and talk to them, listening to their stories about the early days of Wing's, is always a pleasure especially for those interested in local history. We spent a little time with the manager tracking the origin of the name to an ancestor named Wing, whose descendant practices dentistry next door.

Wing's may not serve the most exquisitely prepared Chinese food in town, but it's always fun to visit. I've never left angry or depressed. The old building with its wonderful lines and angles enwraps you like the arms of a loving great aunt, who may not cook as well as Mom does but sets a great table.

Address: 131 E. Jackson St., San Jose
Phone: 408.294.3303, or 998.9427
Hours: 11am-9pm daily
Cuisine: Standard Chinese
Price Range: $4.95-$12.95

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From the March 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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