Inside the Yum's carryout at 14th and P Streets NW, deafening sounds bounced off the greasy, once-white tile that covered the walls. Club kids smoking cigarettes stood in a poorly formed line and placed order after order for chicken wings and "mambo" sauce. In the kitchen, cooks laughed at jokes in a foreign tongue and barked out instructions to one another. Middle-aged men in dusty coveralls dozed and occasionally snored as they leaned against the walls--crumpling the Day-Glo signs that advertised specials: "3 wings and fried rice: $2.99." Only when the woman behind the counter shrieked out, say, "Forty-six!" would the activity stop as customers glanced down at little white slips of paper printed with their order numbers.
My first trip to Yum's was as a hungry teenager in need of a cheap, substantial meal after a night of partying. Along with several friends, I stood in the crooked line surveying the back-lit photos of lemon chicken and lo mein while debating what to order. After reaching the counter, each one of us asked for something different, but all of our food shared a common fate--to be dredged through batter, deep-fried, and coated with one type of sauce or another. While waiting for our numbers to come up, we drank Rock Creek sodas and discussed the DJ ("He was a'ight"), the drinks ("Weak!"), and various skanky outfit sightings ("Did you see the girl with the sandals on? It's October!").
The ambiance, or lack thereof, is essentially the same in every Yum's--a tiled floor, often in need of a good sweeping; an industrial-sized trash can splattered with ketchup, soy sauce, and other condiments; and a huge piece of bulletproof glass separating the waiting area from the kitchen. In the absence of tables, chairs, or even a window ledge wide enough to rest a paper plate on, you have to balance your containers of food with one hand or else place them on top of the trash can before ravenously tearing in. Or you can just inhale the spicy aroma wafting from your oily paper bag the whole way home.
A Yum's menu, at first glance, looks like that of a standard Chinese restaurant: sweet-and-sour chicken, egg rolls, and other typical fare. Turn the menu over, however, and a melange of cuisines intersect: barbecue ribs, hamburgers, hoagies, fried chicken and fish, "crab" sticks, even chicken gizzards.
"We all like the convenience, and they do everything--hamburgers, steak-and-cheese--it's not purely Chinese food," says Ben Ali Jr., owner of Ben's Chili Bowl, on U Street NW. "They also go along with the urban idea of 'I can get whatever I want, whenever I want.'"
The seven existing Yum's restaurants were all started by restaurateur Jerry Chen, 45, and his brother, Joe Chen, 32. Three of the restaurants are east of the Anacostia River; one is in Northeast, next to Gallaudet University; and the remaining three are in Northwest.
The brothers have sold six outlets and now control only the original Yum's, the one at 14th and P. Friends and family members run the others, and all of the restaurants are still fairly uniform in their goal to cater to the taste buds' most basic desires--sugar, salt, and fat.
The food is hardly ripped from the pages of Bon Appetit, but Yum's is undoubtedly a local favorite, lauded by both club kids and swing-shift workers, who lunch at an hour when nearly everything else is closed. But the restaurant is not without its problems. There is palpable tension between Asian staff and the primarily black clientele, and the high speed and low cost of the food can force owners to cut corners in ways that violate District health codes.
Still, despite these proverbial flies in the soup, the greasy spoon is quintessentially Washington, and not the Washington of tourists and federal rule. Yum's doesn't advertise or pander to food critics; it caters to locals.
"I come here for the variety," says Ronald Lewis, 31, a Maryland resident who works at Murry's grocery store, just a few doors down from the Yum's on Minnesota Avenue, in Northeast. "If I want Chinese food, I get Chinese; sometimes I order the steak-and-cheese special. I get tired of eating McDonald's all the time!"
Washington, unlike most other major cities and states in the union, has no true native cuisine. Unlike the firmly ensconced ethnic groups who bring pizza parlors, delicatessens, and patty shops to Chicago, Boston, and New York, our immigrant populations arrive in small, diverse waves of people who don't necessarily put down roots. The cuisine these residents bring with them isn't emblematic of the city the way time-tested ethnic foods elsewhere are.
Our transient and international population inspires culinary innovation, but few constant, comforting favorites. Washington boasts an array of restaurants that feature dishes from around the globe, but they are considered exotica rather than integral elements of the city's flavor.
Even soul food, the cuisine that reflects the heritage of the majority of Chocolate City's residents, is treated as a novelty. Locals eat chitterlings and collard greens at home and in church cafeterias, but if you were to point an out-of-towner to a commercial establishment offering good old Southern cooking, more than likely you'd end up recommending a dress-up joint with valet parking that is owned by some out-of-town sharpie. Down-home corner eateries are few and far between.
In June 2000, the city's culinary identity crisis even forced the food editors at the Washington Post to send out a call to action, asking readers to submit ideas and recipes.
Six hundred and eighteen Post readers answered the call, proffering such alleged D.C. specialties as Senate navy bean soup and cherry pie. In the end, the dining despots decided that our regional dish would be...the half-smoke.
A slightly plumper cousin of the hot dog, these gelatinous franks can be found all over the country, but the Post claimed that Washington has a "local variant"--a mixture of beef and pork that is "on the spicy side."
Half-smokes are cooked in the murky waters of food carts near every museum, subway station, and controlled-entry office building in the downtown corridor. Take a stroll through downtown at lunchtime on any given weekday and you'll find suit-and-tie types sucking 'em down two at a time. The half-smoke allows Washingtonians to feel simultaneously virtuous--for spending a mere buck-fifty on lunch--and cool--because somehow they're eating with the people because they skip Kinkead's once a week.
Affordable--yes. Accessible--no. Outside of downtown, food carts are scarce. Workers who flee the city at sunset and wouldn't dare venture back before sunrise don't seem to notice that the street vendors pack up and go home when they do. The half-smoke is strictly a 9-to-5 food. What are the people who actually live here supposed to eat?
The contest that would eventually elevate the status of the half-smoke was conducted to celebrate the arrival of Post food critic Tom Sietsema, who judged the entries, along with a panel of other expert foodies. Unfortunately, the writing gourmet, and those suburban-dwelling voters who cast the ballots, did not have all of the necessary info.
In a 2001 online forum on the Washington restaurant scene, Sietsema was asked for guidance in selecting the best place to sample some of D.C.'s carryout cuisine; Yum's and the half-smoke cart were offered as options. Sietsema shamelessly steered the inquisitor toward the latter, admitting, "I haven't been to Yum's."
If Sietsema were to visit a Yum's, he would probably learn that if D.C. does, in fact, have a regional specialty, it's probably chicken wings and mambo sauce.
Yum's carryouts use enormous chicken parts--not for them the miniature drumettes and wing dings used in many restaurants. The wings are battered and submerged into a deep fryer and emerge a deep golden a few minutes later. Juicy and crisp, the wings are tasty by themselves, but not extraordinary. The mambo sauce is what sets the poultry apart.
Whereas Buffalo-style sauce is hot and spicy, mambo sauce is sweet and tangy. The goo is similar in flavor, color, and consistency to sweet-and-sour sauce, a mainstay of many Chinese menus. The sugar in the sticky sauce balances out the salt of the crunchy wings, creating a truly harmonious gastronomical experience.
I have been offended by many an out-of-town guest who greeted a steaming Styrofoam container of barnyard pimp smothered in sticky-sweet sauce with more affection than I was shown at the airport gate. No visitor has ever demanded that I immediately drive a half-hour out of the way for a half-smoke.
"People go crazy for the chicken wings and mambo sauce! I don't know why!" says Joe Chen.
Any Washington-area carryout worth its MSG has chicken wings and mambo sauce (also called "mumbo" and even "mumble," depending on the carryout) on its menu.
"Mambo sauce is everywhere," Chen continues. "People always ask us to give them the recipe, but we order it from a warehouse--they come in and try to buy containers of mambo sauce to take home with them."
In selling our city's true favorite dish, carryouts, although ignored by culinary snobs, have become the Washington version of the corner pizzeria. And bolstered by the success of their wings 'n' sauce, Jerry and Joe Chen have turned Yum's into the gold standard for the Chinese carryout business in Washington. Just as Kleenex and Xerox are the brand names associated with generic tissue and copy machines, in Washington, Yum's is synonymous with carryout.
"Yum's has opened several spots around town," says Ali. "They seem to be among the more stable, long-term carryouts. I know that there are many others, but I couldn't name another one."
In 1979, Jerry Chen left his native Hong Kong and joined numerous relatives living in Washington and working in the restaurant business. Chen, already a skilled cook, worked beside uncles and aunts at various local carryouts until Joe arrived in 1983 and offered to help him operate his own restaurant. After learning of their plans, the men's grandfather, who had been in this country for years, offered a few words of wisdom on how to gain the business of their new compatriots.
"When I came to this country, he told me, 'American people say, "Yum, yum, yum," when they eat good food,'" says Jerry Chen. "He told me Yum's was a good name for a restaurant."
Spurning this helpful advice, the brothers named their first restaurant Jerry's. The restaurant caught on, prompting the entrepreneurs to open a second outlet. As the two locations began to turn a sizable profit, the brothers sold them and opened the restaurant that their grandfather assured them would be a great success--Yum's.
The original Yum's opened in 1987, one of the city's first late-night eateries. The brothers continued to expand the franchise until 1996, when, feeling the burden of managing seven restaurants, they began to slowly sell the outlets to trusted associates.
Most of the restaurants have been sold to friends, cousins, or other family members, who agreed to let the original staff stay on. In exchange, buyers insisted on retaining use of the Yum's name. "We sold the name with the restaurant--they asked me to keep the name Yum's. They didn't want to change the name, so I said, 'OK! OK! I'll let you keep the name,'" says Jerry Chen.
The name somehow manages to outlive economic and cultural forces that have swept other neighborhood institutions away. The 14th and P Yum's, for instance, first opened in a Logan Circle still reeling in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. Today it thrives in an area that's home to upscale restaurants, nightclubs, and a Fresh Fields.
And the carryout doesn't suffer from its association with a less gilded age. Although neighbors complain about alleged drug trafficking at the 14th Street Popeyes and Bally's carryout, Yum's is one pre-gentrification relic that has managed to ruffle few feathers.
"We have had no concerns with Yum's, and it is generally looked upon as a neighborhood-friendly business," says Cary Silverman, president of the Logan Circle Community Association.
The 14th and P Yum's has seven employees who each make roughly $7.50 an hour--more than a dollar above the $6.15 D.C. minimum wage, which is what employees at other fast-food restaurants, such as Popeyes, are generally paid. "That's pretty much standard for all Yum's," says Joe Chen, who is in charge of day-to-day operations at the outlet.
Although the Chen brothers will disclose what they pay their employees, they are reluctant to publicize their sales and profit figures. "It's a very competitive business," says Joe. "If another Chinese restaurant finds out that you have a good business, they will try to open up right next door to you."
Copycats are a legitimate concern. There are already a few Yum's restaurants in suburban Virginia and Maryland that are not owned by the Chen family. Joe Chen says that these are imitators. "They copied the name and opened their own restaurants," he says. "There are even two Yum's in Tennessee. The name is not trademarked yet."
With most of his original carryout restaurants sold and his brother operating the one remaining location, Jerry Chen has turned to relieving suburbanites of some of their disposable income via the Yum's Grand Buffet, a sit-down restaurant in Waldorf, Md.
The elder Chen tends to defer to his younger brother on matters, both past and present, pertaining to the carryout. The suits he wears to work each day are only one sign that, with more than 20 years in the restaurant business under his belt, he prefers to focus on his more upscale establishment.
Jerry Chen shows off news clippings that celebrate the Waldorf restaurant, which prominently displays the county seal that was presented to him by a group of local civic leaders who lunched there. "It's very good [at the Grand Buffet]," he says. "The people are nice, just like in D.C. It's just farther away. I live in Waldorf--it's closer for me to come to work now."
And the Chens' suburban expansion plans didn't end with the Grand Buffet. They are in the process of opening a new Jerry's restaurant in Largo, Md.
"I've had more than 15 restaurants. Cooking is easy--I can cook everything. I've been cooking for over 19 years. I'm 45 years old--I've been cooking for a long time. It's so easy for me now. I can make anything, but different locations need different food," says Jerry.
Patrons of Yum's carryouts expect their food in five minutes or less. And the restaurants' ability to provide a "quick and dirty" version of higher-end Chinese cuisine has been a major contributor to their success.
"They're competition--it's a challenge to smaller restaurants because people expect good food at carryout speed," says John Tinpe, owner of Chinatown's Burma Restaurant and chair of the D.C. Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs. "Carryouts have food they can prepare faster--dine-in service takes longer. They provide a service--good, fast food--but the food quality is not as good as at a dine-in."
To achieve their economy and speed, carryouts often employ time-saving shortcuts that other restaurants do not. Many pre-cook menu items and reheat them in the deep fryer to order. As a result of such practices, many carryouts have become fixtures on the D.C. Department of Health's weekly Food Establishment Closures and Restorations list. And even the Logan Circle Yum's has made a recent appearance on that list, getting slapped with a one-day suspension after receiving an unsatisfactory 58 percent sanitation rating in January 2002.
Other Yum's have been cited for less serious violations. A June 2001 Food Establishment Inspection Report noted that the South Capitol Street Yum's needed to "clean filters to remove old grease" and "cease leaving open can foods in can. All food must be covered and wrapped, also protected from contamination."
Discoveries ranging from the merely gross to the potentially dangerous were found at the Minnesota Avenue Yum's in October 2001. "Clean exterior of mop bucket (very dirty), clean below grill where storage is located (tracks very greasy)," the report reads. "Do not thaw out foods in water (must be refrigerated or under cold running water)," it concludes.
Some findings would upset the stomachs of even the staunchest nightclubbers. The Health Department requires that all hot food be maintained at a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above, but food tested in the 14th Street kitchen in January was much lower. The wonderful wings--the pyramid of bird parts, slick with grease and ready to be boxed up and transported home--registered a mere 119.7 degrees, and the fried chicken breasts were gauged at only 102.3 degrees, according to the report.
On a Saturday night in March, two women in their early 20s come into the Benning Road Yum's in search of a late-night nosh. They are coated in a light sprinkling of body glitter and dressed in similarly revealing black outfits, despite the unseasonably cool weather. Both are giddy from a night of partying and drinking. They walk up to the counter, place their orders, and each get a little paper slip with a number printed on it that will be called when their food is ready.
After about 10 minutes, one woman becomes anxious. "Where is my food at? I mean, shit, I'm hungry!" she says, loud enough for the young man working the counter to hear. "It shouldn't take this long. I'm hungry!"
Busy filling orders, he ignores her. "He probably doesn't even understand me--you know, they only know 'shrimp flied lice,'" she says.
"Whatever--that's my boy" the other woman says, rushing to the employee's defense. "He always hooks up my food when I come in here."
The women's numbers are finally called, and the man hands them their food. The counter worker gives the woman who defended him a meek smile as they head out of the door.
The bulletproof glass at Yum's is only one indicator of the uncomfortable relations between Asians and African-Americans at such establishments. Conditions are not as volatile as they are in, say, Los Angeles, but problems do arise.
"In some neighborhoods, there is tension between the merchants and the people living in the neighborhood around the business," says Tinpe. He says problems aren't prevalent in Chinatown but do crop up in other parts of the city. "It's anything from petty crime--like not wanting to pay for a meal or eating half and returning it and wanting a cash refund--to more serious crimes, including robberies and people being shot."
The most serious flare-up in recent years occurred in November 2000, when the A-1 Grocery on Division Avenue in Lincoln Heights was firebombed. The bombing occurred after a Nov. 22 incident in which store owner Frank Han became engaged in a scuffle with a 14-year-old African-American girl who had allegedly tried to underpay for an ice cream.
News of the scuffle prompted residents to boycott the store and set up a picket line outside its doors. On Nov. 30, after nearly a week of protest, someone threw the firebomb at the store, setting a portion of the store's exterior ablaze. No one was hurt.
Malik Zulu Shabazz, a Washington attorney and leader of the city's New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, cites two fundamental reasons for the Asian merchant/black customer rift.
"Asian business owners control 80 percent of the carryouts in Washington, D.C.," says Shabazz, who represented the girl involved in the A-1 altercation and led the boycott. "Anytime an outside population controls 80 percent of a small business--specifically carryouts in this instance--it is a natural source of tension. Then there is the disrespect that black people receive at times from Asian business owners. There is a feeling that we're not respected for our dollars."
Shabazz says he doesn't have a problem with Yum's, or any carryout in particular, but rather with the prevalence of such businesses in black neighborhoods across the city. "Yum's may provide a good service to the community, in light of the fact that 80 percent of these carryouts are owned by Asians. [But that number] is unacceptable."
Shabazz also believes that the proprietors of Yum's and other Asian carryouts gain an unfair competitive edge by banding together when purchasing supplies in order to get better deals.
"Our research shows that Asian business owners have achieved a decisive advantage in creating a network of merchants that buy wholesale products together," Shabazz says. "The average black owner can't compete."
Joe Chen acknowledges that he and his brother join with fellow business owners who are family members and friends in ordering supplies, but says he sees nothing wrong with the practice. "We have done that. When a bigger order is placed, we are able to get a bigger discount."
"I'm not speaking from a position of hatred for Asians or Asian merchants," Shabazz continues. "Blacks and Asians have proven that we can get along--there is a history of brotherhood between us."
But Shabazz adds that he would like to see Asian businesses contribute to their neighborhoods more, in part by diversifying staff. Because many city carryouts are small businesses that employ family members, the workforce is fairly homogeneous--all seven employees of the 14th Street Yum's are Asian. "They don't hire black people--people from the community," says Shabazz. "And they must have a greater contribution to community causes in an open and visible way."
One factor that complicates interactions between these businesses and the larger community is language. The seven Yum's, like many other carryouts, are entirely staffed by Asians, many of whom are recent immigrants just learning English. Carryout work allows them to earn a wage while mastering the language, but food service does not always provide the ideal language lab.
"The greatest barrier is the language barrier. People spit their orders out too fast, and if [an employee] doesn't know much English, and can't interpret as quickly as we would like, we become impatient," says Yum's customer Brian Muhammad, 33, a former District resident now living in Northern Virginia. "And there are also preconceived stereotypes on both sides that don't help--there's automatically a wall up between the two groups."
"The customers are a little frustrated by the businesses' not being able to understand them," Tinpe concedes. "The assumption is that everyone who works here and wants to run a business should be able to speak the common spoken language well. But if they were fluent in the language and skilled, they probably wouldn't be engaged in those businesses. They'd probably be working in a law firm or something."
Tinpe notes that the D.C. Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs is working to ensure that these businesses engage in the communities where they are located in more tangible ways, especially in Wards 7 and 8.
"We try to get the businesses to be more actively involved in neighborhood affairs," Tinpe says. "Some businesses have started sponsoring events at schools--sports teams. This is more with the mom-and-pop stores. They are more actively involved, because they deal on a day-to-day basis with the customers."
In neighborhoods within Wards 7 and 8, tensions run especially high. In addition to a difference in language, some residents harbor resentment toward carryouts for a perceived kind of opportunistic racism. Like the liquor stores that dot nearly every corner in black neighborhoods, carryouts are often criticized for taking advantage of poverty--setting up shop where there are few grocery stores so that they can peddle fatty foods to those who have limited access to healthier alternatives. Some customers say that they eat at Yum's because it is accessible, not because it's appetizing.
"I come in here about once a week, but only because I catch the bus right across the street," says Kim Lewis, 50, who lives near the Minnesota Avenue Yum's. "It's just convenient. The only thing I ever get is the same thing I'm getting right now--french fries. Sometimes I'll get a cheeseburger, too, but I have to be really hungry to eat the cheeseburger."
Others believe that Yum's, and carryouts like it, go where other establishments refuse to and therefore provide a valuable service.
"Yum's has done a great job in serving the black community, as far as food is concerned," says Muhammad.
"Fast food in general is unhealthy," he continues. "You can't single out Asian restaurants. If you don't want to eat there, then don't eat there, but you can't expect tofu burgers and chef salad with low-calorie dressing."
Joe Chen says that he and his brother didn't target specific areas when shopping for suitable carryout sites. They basically went with their real estate agents' suggestions, he says, which were based on the brothers' price range. "Real estate agents introduced us to most of the locations--we didn't go after neighborhoods."
Furthermore, Chen argues, the outlets in the poorer neighborhoods are not necessarily the best business bets. "Some locations are tough," he says. "That's why we sold them."
There are many more late-night restaurant options now than there were when I frequented the restaurant, in the early '90s. The carryout doesn't have the built-in customer base it once did--even Yum's loyalists have tended to branch out and sample the other foods the city has to offer.
Still, when residents move on or away, they usually harbor sentimental feelings for the place.
"I've had customers come in and say goodbye when they are leaving town to tell me that they will miss the food," says Joe Chen. "One time I was reading an article in a magazine about a businessman leaving D.C. They asked him what he would miss most, and he said, 'Yum's french fries.' I think I still have the article."
Every once in a while, when a craving for chicken wings with extra mambo sauce strikes, I'll stop into Yum's. In my absence, not much has changed.
On a Monday night in April, Davida Saunders, 21, and two friends stop by the Minnesota Avenue Yum's on their way back to Maryland after attending a party. While they debate what they're going to order, they discuss the details of the evening: the music ("It was a'ight, I guess"), the men in attendance ("Immature"), and the attire of other female guests ("I know it's April and all, but it is not hot enough for a halter!").
Saunders, who has to get up and go to work in the morning, is quickly losing patience with her friends as they mull over the 200-odd choices on the menu.
"Should I get beef and broccoli or the steak-and-cheese?" one asks.
"Just pick one!" says Saunders. "You know you'll be here again on Friday. Get one now and get the other one then."
"Oh no, I'm not," insists the young woman. "Friday is payday--I'm going somewhere nice."
"Maybe so," says Saunders. "But sooner or later, you'll be back." CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.