One of my earliest memories is of going with my parents to the Alisan Chinese Restaurant in Anaheim, California. I exclusively ordered the cashew chicken (or moon nuts in my three-year-old vocabulary) and it's where I learned to eat with chopsticks.
My family left Southern California in the mid-1980s along with so many others in the aerospace industry and we moved to McDonnell Douglas's new headquarters in Mesa, Arizona. I recall my mother's horror at the local grocery store's posters proclaiming the Grand Canyon State's liberal gun carrying policies and her frustration at the culinary wasteland, which was seemingly devoid of good Chinese food.
After futile attempts at Sampan and Autumn Moon, my father happened upon China Palace. Tucked into a strip mall like so many dining establishments in the Valley of the Sun, China Palace was located close to his office and not too far from our house. It wasn't long before we became regulars and Sunday dinners could only mean one stereotypical option - Chinese take out.
As frequent patrons, we began to befriend the owners, Dick and Katie, and soon found ourselves invited to private celebrations on Chinese New Year and Christmas (natch). They'd serve authentic Chinese food to their families and special invitees, including my family. It was the first time I'd seen head-on prawns and I recall my brother gaining significant entertainment from the eyes. We'd scored fans and fancy calendars decorated with scenic vistas and birds and somewhere along the way I learned the importance of being endearing to proprietors.
Here in my new suburban New Jersey town, I've made the acquaintance of a few bartenders, shopkeepers and business owners, but I'm really only at full endearment status with one. Raul of Raul's Empanada Town and I were instant amigos. I bring legions of new or soon to be loyalists to his place and he helps me with my Spanish. The zenith of my quest to be utterly considered a "regular" came when Raul willinging gave me a free t-shirt. Now I strut the streets proudly advertising like so many Armani Exchange shoppers.
But it's not limited to me. One friend has a long-standing relationship with his local Indian restaurant that's included gifts of tapestries featuring an amorous Indian couple. My co-worker can work miracles at the local deli, though I've never seen her score any swag.
I wonder, what is it about some people that particularly endears them to a certain restaurant owner? Is it mere frequence of appearances or does enthusiasm in recruiting others play a role? Can one "double dip" and be adored by two establishments? At the same time? In the same city?
Personally, I think creating a wide network of proprietors who brighten at the sight of my face (or my AmEx card) is a worthwhile endeavor in this age of big box stores and impersonal business interactions. Maybe if we all reach out and cultivate relationships with one or two mom and pop stores then the world could be a better place. Or maybe we'd all just eat better.