Ruby's Chinese Restaurant
You would call it nondescript. A low brick building with a small semblance of a pagoda design on the roof above the front door, set in the left corner. The parking lot was shared by an apartment complex and there were plenty of times when I know residents had to park far from their spot because the restaurant was full.
People would drive two hours one way for dinner at Ruby’s. The moment you walked in, you left the routine behind and entered a tiny corner of the exotic. The overwhelming impression was of red—on the floor, the walls, lanterns, booths and decorations. But not the same red: shades of red that called the eye and made the room warm and expansive.
Everyone who worked at Ruby’s was Asian. Extremely polite, ranging from reticent to friendly, but always attentive. The menu was huge, and if you tried pronouncing the sonorous dish names in Chinese, the waiter or waitress would say the number; if you said the number, you’d hear the words. I stuck to the English descriptions, and over the years, tried all of the almost 200 dishes they served.
I had my favorites—Mo Shu, Sizzling Rice Soup, Mongolian Beef, Moo Goo Gai Pan—and whether it was a favorite or a new dish, I was never disappointed. Not once. In the middle of my run of weekly visits, I actually focused more on seeing if something would go wrong rather than on enjoying the experience. Fortunately, that ended quickly.
Most of the time, I’d dine alone, so food was the only focus. I learned to appreciate green tea, my consumption rising over the years from one cup to a pot or maybe two in the winter. If I ate with a group and Bill was there, we’d both pass on entrees until the Mongolian Beef appeared, then we’d pretend not to be hogging it as we polished off the entire plate.
Dining at Ruby’s was always… spiritual. Believe me, I tried to avoid using that word. Recorded as an incident, a visit to Ruby’s was prosaic: one entered, ordered, was served, ate, paid and departed; nothing intrinsically metaphysical about any of that. But the time I spent there was somehow sharper, brighter, clearer, more real.
Maybe it was the night I’d arrived a bit later than usual and as soon as I’d finished eating, Ruby’s began closing around me. As I got up to leave, one of the waiters came to me and, without a word, motioned for me to sit at the long table that flanked the kitchen entrance. It was usually reserved for special parties as it oversaw the entire L-shaped restaurant. (The private room had a smaller table, tucked in the short arm of the L.)
I sat down as the door swung open and every employee of Ruby’s came in carrying a bowl, tureen, plate or pot. Without a wasted motion, almost a dozen dishes were arranged with artistry, water glasses filled and tea served. Ruby’s owners, a middle-aged couple with friendly eyes, came in, sat down and everyone began to eat.
I hesitated. Chinese was flitting back and forth interspersed with laughter and food floating onto plates all around me. The owner caught my eye and smiled. He pointed at a dish placed in front of me that somehow I had missed. Mongolian Beef. No one had touched it.
My hesitation ended. I took a small portion and passed the Mongolian Beef into the stream criss-crossing the table. Dishes came my way, contributed new flavors to my plate and were passed on. The only words I spoke during that meal were “Thank you” and “This?” No one spoke to me. No one needed to. I was asked to share their private moment and had been welcomed.
I never went to Ruby’s after that expecting to be invited, but I never turned it down, no matter how much I’d eaten. I marveled at how comfortable I could feel while being the only non-speaker at the table. I was both guest—honored and treated with deference—and family, maybe like the quiet cousin from a far province.
On a wintry November night, at the end of the meal, I announced I was leaving town. As if rehearsed, everyone bowed to me and then converged, patting me on the shoulders, shaking my hands, even gently tugging my hair. As I groped for the words to thank them, the owner and his wife went to the kitchen, then came back and handed me a small box. It contained a small dragon, made of golden wire with red lacquer. A strip of paper was curled atop the figurine, adorned with Chinese characters. Tapping my shoulder, he pointed at the paper and said: “Wherever you go, our heart follows.” I nodded as my throat tightened. “You come back anytime.”
I nodded again, said good night and walked out into the cold, never to return. In some way, I never really left.