The Taiwanese Groupon

“Hey, what’s up?” I said into my cell phone. It was my buddy Shane calling.

“What are you and Jaime up to this Friday night? I bought a Groupon for a Taiwanese restaurant in Bellevue. You two want to come? I looked up the reviews online and the place has great reviews!”

The Groupon was for a 5 course meal served family-style for a group of four. Thinking to myself, “Nice, I love Thai food!” I committed my wife and I to the excursion, setting into motion a most unforgettable series of events.

As was often the case on miserable fall Northwest days, by the time I arrived home from work, I was damp and tired. Trekking 45 minutes from our home in Monroe, Washington into Bellevue was not how I wanted to spend my Friday night. To make matters worse, my wife was feeling the same way. However we had committed to the dinner, so we set out from home in search of a great Thai dinner.

My wife and I arrived at the designated address minutes behind our friends Shane and Cris. When we pulled into a grocery store parking lot, we noticed one thing conspicuously absent… a restaurant. Convinced our mapping programs were simply a block or so off, we set out into the crowded streets to roam back and forth – to and fro for about 10 minutes. Confused, we ended up back in the grocery store parking lot.

“Hey, check out that banner…” Shane commented . Just to the side of the grocery store marquee, there was a elongated white sign with a top-left corner drooping so as to make it impossible to read. “I think that might be the name of the restaurant.”

With nothing to lose, we decided to poke our heads into the grocery store for information. Approaching, we immediately noticed something which had escaped attention in the dark – wet – parking lot. The name of the store was definitely Asian.

“I think the restaurant might be inside the grocery store!” Shane said.

There could be nothing more out-of-place than four Caucasians – with the color skin one only gets in a Washington State fall and winter – walking through an Asian grocery store on a Friday night.

However, true enough, as Shane suspected, the restaurant was inside the grocery store. Cordoned off in a corner were a group of tables, a door into a back kitchen, and a lot of Asians. We skittishly dodged through the restaurant to one of the only available tables and took our seats… right next to the kitchen door.

Even though our family-style meal was predestined, I picked up the menu on the table. At this time I realized Thai food and Taiwanese food are fish of a completely different scent.

Raising an eyebrow, I said, “It smells a bit funny in here.”

No sooner had I stated this when our waitress approached. I think she asked us how she could help us. I say I “think,” because she spoke no English. Shane produced the aforementioned Groupon, she nodded her head, and disappeared into the kitchen.

A few minutes after receiving glasses of water the first round arrived at the table. Fish Soup.

Have you seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Remember the dinner scene when actress Kate Capshaw orders the soup? Yeah, for a bunch of pale-skins, this was the experience. Odors of raw fish wafted from the hot liquid. Tentatively dipping a spoon into the murky liquid, Cris lifted some to her lips. The spoon momentarily halting below her nose should have been a warning to the rest of us.

Not to be outdone, Shane and I followed suit, and before we could audibly review the fetid fish pot, Jaime lifted a spoon as well.

I cannot say who was the first to actually swallow the soup, or who was first to guzzle a swig of ice-water, but the soup was pushed toward the back of the table and we waited on the next round. Round two was proffered almost immediately.

At this time I am speaking to my fellow uncultured Americans. If you have not had the experience of trying “Stinky Tofu,” I have no words to adequately convey the experience.

Stinky Tofu is of Chinese origin, and is prepared by fermenting tofu in a seafood brine at room temperature – sometimes for a period of months. Once sufficiently rotten, the brined tofu is deep fried and served piping hot.

A rather large serving of Stinky Tofu

Before the tofu ever left the kitchen, Shane said “Do you guys smell tha….”

He didn’t have time to finish when the doors swung wide and an odor, no, not simply “odor,” an all-out-assault on on the olfactory senses arrived at the table. Smiling widely and offering a quick bow, the waitress left us with what I will unabashedly say was the worst thing to ever pass my lips.

By this point in the meal, something which had begun as a wet and weary evening, had turned into a night of happiness and mirth. Uncontrollably laughing, we each took our turn trying a bite of the tofu. I say “took our turn,” because the experience was so foul, we deemed it worthy to allow the remaining 3 to watch the victim attempting a bite try to stifling their “gag reflex.”

There were a few rounds after this which involved fried meats, and other things the four of us deemed edible.

When we at-long-last finished the meal, Shane flagged down our waitress and made known through a series of hand signals we were finished with the food. Smiling broadly, she swept away the dishes.

As we were about to make good our escape, the waitress appeared again. She had boxed up the entire meal for us to take home.

“Hey! You bought the Groupon; you take home the leftovers!” I said boldly before Shane could offer them to Jaime and I.

Not wishing to offend our smiling host, Shane picked up the food, complete with fish-soup and Stinky Tofu, and we made for the door. Having been prevented from discarding the meal in a storefront garbage can by the presence nearby restaurant patrons, Shane piled into his car with Cris and the malodorous meal.

As much of an affront to the senses as the entire experience was, I cherish this memory almost as much as any other food related memory I have. On an evening which began wet and tired – grumpy and wanting to just stay home – my wife and I made cherished memories with great friends. By the time the meal was finished, our sides hurt from laughing.

The lesson here: Sometimes our feelings can be deceptive. I didn’t feel like getting out of the house. If you’d have told me what was set on the menu, I certainly wouldn’t have felt like going out to eat. However, in spite of being tired, driving in the rain and cold, and a meal as foreign as any I’ve experienced (before or since,) I left with a giant smile on my face and cherished memories in my heart. I deem that a successful experience.

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