tl;dr: my favorites are the hot and sour soup, special chow mein, bbq pork fried rice, and potstickers, but give the other menu items a try and let me know what else is good.
I’ve spent hours trying to think of the best way to extol the virtues of Fu Man. This restaurant deserves to be admired for their offerings, but hyperbolic pontification isn’t the way to do it. In the past, I have only expressed exaltations of restaurants, processing my disbelief at the experience I was having. To act this way about Fu Man feels disrespectful and disingenuous. Their food is excellent, but in an expected way. Fu Man, and other humble restaurants like them, aren’t exciting. Fu Man is just a place, trying to serve you some food at a fair price, and doing a consistently good job at it. A review of a place like this can’t be hyperbolic. Nothing about this place is hyperbolic. A review acting as though it is heightens expectations in a way that isn’t fair to the restaurant or the customer, and it completely misses the best parts of what they’re putting out there.
Walking into Fu Man, you can expect a good meal at a low price, served by people who are proud of it. In essence, this is everything I love about a restaurant. There are no airs to put on in this humble strip mall. The waiting area consists of four square feet and a gumball machine. The chairs are from Office Depot, and the lighting fluorescent. The placemats will tell you all about your place on the Chinese zodiac, and the menu is made of bright orange paper stuffed into old menu jackets. Then, the pickled vegetables and garlic sauce appear. Your meal is about to begin. They’re here to take care of you.
At Fu Man, a small, free plate of pickles starts you off. Most of the time, there is daikon, carrot, cucumber, and bean sprouts. They taste the way true pickles do, mostly funky, a little salty, kind of sweet. These pickles aren’t changing the pickle game, but they hint at something bigger than a fermented vegetable, something more important than a free appetizer. The pickles placed on each table represent a quiet integrity that leads to consistently good food. Fu Man isn’t showy about this appetizer. It is plunked down without any fanfare, no self-praising “free, for you!”, no description of what you’ve just been offered. It is set on the table as if it’s supposed to be there, as if it is there simply because it is the right thing to do. Before we feed you, we feed you. No pretense, no excitement, just a bit of vegetables to get everything started. This isn’t something that a restaurant owner can be taught. This is a way of living transferred onto a plate. This is integrity and a willingness to serve others.
These ideals also translate into Fu Man’s most popular item: garlic sauce. When you sit down, the garlic sauce is placed on your table, along with the aforementioned pickles and some sambal oelek (vinegary chili paste, also quite good). They place a fresh jar on the table with each meal because a lot of their patrons empty the jar all over their food. This is humility, plain and simple. To present plate after plate of well-seasoned food knowing that your care and hard work will be drowned out by extra sauce could make for a begrudging chef, but instead, Fu Man works with what their customers want. A long time ago, they started giving their customers more sauce, their own personal jar of sauce. They started bottling their sauce so you can dump it on all your other food at home too. When your to go boxes are packed, they ask how many containers of sauce you want with your leftovers. They know that even though you’re ordering a few different items off the menu, everything on the table is subject to a garlic sauce blanket.
To ignore this restaurant and it’s place in the restaurant scene because I can’t make grand exclamations about their food is ignoring all of these ideals that make an everyday restaurant worth visiting. Sure, Fu Man is just straight up Chinese food, but they take it seriously. Their service wouldn’t win them awards for decorum and grace, but they’re well-humored and pleasant. Their chow mein, rice, and potstickers aren’t reinventions of old favorites, they’re just the old favorites. Old favorites done well by people who want you to enjoy them. Can’t ask for more than that.