Serendipity at the Hard Wok Cafe

A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine last issue spoke to me. Old white-bearded Father Time stood on a street corner with a sign reading, “The End of Summer is near, and you still haven’t made any plans.”

Too true, so on Saturday, Gosia and I left Fairbanks on an unhurried drive to enjoy the dramatic vistas of Isabel Pass near Paxson. I loved camping here 20 years ago in a 12 x 14 state cabin at Fielding Lake with my younger son.

Autumn’s start announced itself in the browning trees, yellowing ground plants and crisp air. Whenever Gosia and I stopped to explore a trail, mushrooms greeted us every step. A couple ‘shrooms did look appetizing, and I picked them. “If we ate those, we’d be dead ten times over,” Gosia said. She knows her mushrooms from autumns spent at our cabin in Poland. She cooked two pots of edible Boletes last week that she found in our side yard and used them to enhance some dinners.

We paused at the library in Delta Junction, because it always puts free books in the entryway. I pulled a Latin refresher course out of the pile to recapture what I once knew cold during six years of courses spent translating Caesar, Cicero and Vergil.

After book foraging, we agreed to stay in Delta for lunch. Gosia spotted a tiny, single-story building with a sign reading “The Wok,” known by locals as the “Hard Wok Café.” We went inside. The tiny interior looked plain with sparse furniture but spotless.

A delightful spry woman of 74 bounced over to greet us. She worked as chef, owner, waitress and dish washer.

Our chef, whose name I could not catch in three requests before giving up, fell in love with an American in her native Saigon in 1974 and moved to Alaska. Her many family members stare back at Gosia and me from their photos plastered to one wall.

We ordered hot tea and consulted the menu.

“I don’t know why you even look at menus in Asian restaurants, Gosia,” I said. “You always order sweet and sour chicken.”

“I do not,” Gosia said, and then ordered sweet and sour chicken, flashing me a “Don’t you dare say anything” glare.

“I’ll have the red curry,” I said.

“We have no curry,” the chef said.

I was disappointed. “Go ahead, put on your poopy face,” Gosia said.

The chef came up with the right English words after a pause.“We have green curry,”

“Perfect,” I said, retracting my poopy face.

Twenty minutes or so later, our meals turned out to be perfect, too. The portions of chicken were huge, and the sliced vegetables and fruit had been fresh before cooking. The white rice was light and fluffy and seasoned but was not over-salted.

As we dug into our meals, two young men entered. They dressed in nice, casual clothes.

“They’re from Europe,” Gosia said.

“How do you know?” I countered, but she already had approached them.

“I’m from Poland but living here now,” Gosia said to them. “Where are your homes?”

They told us were French nationals on a self-assigned year-long mission to film wild animals and scenic views in the U.S. and Canada. Gosia gave me a smug stare translated to mean, “I told you they were from Europe.”

They checked the menu at the counter and the board for specials on a wall.

“I’ll have the red curry,” one young man said.

“We have no curry,” the chef said.

“Ask the lady if she has green curry,” I said to him, butting in.

He asked, and she answered with a happy nod.

They sat at the adjoining table. I tried to speak a few sentences using my primitive French, but when the young men hid a giggle, I blushed and again spoke English. (Maybe I can find a French refresher book next time).

The French-Chinese young man’s name was Waikit and his traveling buddy was a Frenchman named Simon. They had shipped a custom-fitted Citroen motor home to the U.S. from a port in Belgium. Big as a battleship, it was parked outside.

“Its nickname is Remy,” Waikit said.

After shipping the motor home, they flew here with their golden striped cat Malo. The cat was on the business card Waikit handed me.

The proprietor brought them their meals. The two visitors started eating.

“This curry is fantastic,” Waikit said. “My family originally is from China, and I expected the usual bad American style Chinese food. I know Vietnamese food, and this is wonderful.”

Our pleased chef overheard and came to stand with us near their table. We individually were Polish, German-Polish-American, Chinese, Vietnamese, and French.

“We could practically start our own cartel,” I later told Gosia.

Gosia and I said “au revoir” and departed for the drive to Fielding Lake, leaving three new friends with our handshakes and mutual good will.

More Winners and Sinners this week

Winner: To the packed house and servers at the Cookie Jar restaurant on Sunday who put down their forks to sing a rousing edition of Happy Birthday to tiny Kohane, age one. Many more birthdays, Kohane!

Loser: To the thug who put his foot into the lower window in the entrance door of the Oaken Barrel liquor store on College near University. “He was too old to be doing that crap,” the store clerk told me. “He exploded when I asked to see his ID.” Now the window is fixed and a sign says, “We do not allow threats or aggressions.”