“Okay. See you there. 2:30 tomorrow.”
My phone snapped closed in my hand. I was sitting in the lobby of my dentist trying to distract myself from the agony of a satanic toothache by flipping through the pages of the latest In Touch magazine when my phone vibrated. It was M.
“Let’s do Chinese tomorrow.” Hayden’s hidden gem, Paupau’s Kitchen, popped into my mind and we agreed to meet there the next day. M’s shrill voice echoed in my head. “See you .. 2:30 … .” “Exactamundo, lady” I thought to myself, “tooth hurty.” It was the punch line to a really dumb joke (“What time is it when you need to go to the dentist… ?”), but for me it was also an excruciating reality. I was just turning my attention back to the amazing miracle birth of little Vivienne and Knox Jolie-Pitt when the hygienist called my name.
Nearly 24 hours later, I was discussing the amazing miracle birth of little Vivienne and Knox Jolie-Pitt with M. over a relaxing late lunch. “You think she got those kids the old-fashioned way? Can you say ‘In-vitro’?” she ranted as June cleared our dishes, nodding and smiling detachedly, too polite to react. I’d tried to engage Paupau’s overseer, June, in a conversation, asking “How long have you been in business now?”
“Thirteen years” she said and with that she flitted away like a hummingbird and went back to intensely scrubbing a huge sink with a Brillo pad, an activity she spent the entirety of our visit doing in between trips to our table. Glimpses into the kitchen area reveal a woman obsessed with old-fashioned cleanliness. Everything is sparkling, pristine white and stainless steel, an aesthetic which actually carries over into the main dining room as well.
Fluorescent overhead lighting, personality-free gray carpet and black banquet chairs combine to give the Paupau’s Kitchen dining room an ambience that’s like a cross between trigonometry class and the urgent care waiting room. The wooden tables add a tiny spec of faux nature and the 1980s travel-agent posters of Hong Kong provide fleeting moments of color on otherwise pristine white walls. It matters not. June would probably never lay claim to being an interior decorator; she just wanted a simple place where she could offer her unique take on Chinese cuisine, prepared in the style of her grandmother, a woman they called Paupau.
My first Paupau’s experience was around 10 years ago, and I remember being put off by the fact they didn’t automatically serve a cup of egg flower soup with the lunch combos. “That’s un-American! That’s just not right.” I must have been so beside myself with angst that it overshadowed the rest of my lunch, as I have no memory of anything else about it. Later, I lived up in the neighborhood of Paupau’s for a little while and this is when love began to blossom with stops for take-out at least once every new moon.
Like the interior scheme, the menu itself is stripped down to the bare essentials, each dish a simple easy-to-do math problem. Vegetable plus meat equals entrée. Broccoli chicken, celery chicken, onion chicken, mushroom chicken, Mandarin chicken. OK, Mandarin isn’t technically a vegetable, but you get the idea. The same formula works for beef and shrimp as well, simply a stir-fried combo of this thing and that thing. Menu items asterisked for spiciness include Szechuan, Kung Pao and Curry varieties of Beef, Chicken and Shrimp.
The trademark dish is Paupau’s Kitchen Special Stir Fried Noodles, which includes all meats along with celery, onions and other veggies. Also simmering on the stove is a phenomenal homemade Hot and Sour Soup, and although they still don’t serve Egg Flower as an intro to the individual combos, it is served as part of the massive family-style dinners.
Most excitingly, Paupau’s is one of few proud establishments around who choose to forgo the dualistic trauma of the cola wars and offer RC products on tap. I like to root for the underdog, and there’s nothing as rare and refreshing as an ice cold Royal Crown Cola. I was a little stunned when M. ordered something as health-conscious as the Green Pepper Chicken with Garlic Black Beans. “I’ve got to watch my gut, I’ve got a date on Friday and I need to squeeze into my leather pants.”
Despite the mind-picture her comment evoked, my appetite remained strong. I told June to bring Combination Dinner C, the assortment of dishes it presents are essential and consistently fantastic. A scoop of excellent fried rice provides the base. The Chicken Chow Mein consists of soft noodles, celery and bok choy and is basic, but noticeably fresh and very flavorful. The pale gravy on the Almond chicken isn’t really almond-y at all to me, more like a rich coconut-milk glaze, and the crunchy golden-brown shell surrounding the chicken breast is light like tempura.
Similarly battered is the Sweet and Sour Pork, a dish that normally conjures nightmare images of dark chewy mystery meat, but Paupau’s uses only prime white chops and the pink glaze is light and tangy. In fact, it was super tender; I could even eat it without risking pain and suffering as a result of my freshly pulled tooth. “Ah, we don’t take credit card. Sorry.”
I looked at M. and could tell she was about to succinctly remind poor June exactly what century it was, but I told her “Cool it, chickie, I’ve got cash.” The freshness and quality of Paupau’s cuisine makes it stand out although it shares more in common with fast-Chinese joints like Panda Express or Safeway Deli than it does with the legends of old Chinatown. The atmosphere might be a little sterile and the customer service won’t blow your silk pajamas off, but there’s something alluring about June’s homespun food that will put the crave in you and keep you coming back to that dusty little strip mall hiding in plain sight out in Hayden.