Knots of people begin assembling outside the Foo Chow Cafe at 414 H St. NE as soon as it gets dark most nights, residents of the area say, and by 10 p.m. the sidewalk there is jammed. Cars are double-parked; the drivers jump out and speak briefly with a few people in the crowd, then drive away. This scene continues until 2 a.m.
Police officials and residents of the Stanton Park neighborhood say the small Chinese restaurant, the sidewalk outside and the corner of Fifth and H streets NE a few doors away are the center of the neighborhood's heroin dealing, and they're raising a storm of protest.
"The community has said we want that place closed down," Joseph Isom, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A, said of the Foo Chow, citing numerous residents' complaints he has received.
Isom said the drug trade in the area is testimony to the dilapidation along the H Street NE corridor, looted in riots 15 years ago and never revived to its former commercial vitality. "We're trying to clean up H Street, and this is one of the sore thumbs," he said.
According to police records there have been eight arrests of people inside the Foo Chow in the last 14 months for possession or sale of heroin, two for assault with a dangerous weapon and several others for varied crimes. There have been three drug-related shootings on the sidewalk outside the Foo Chow since the beginning of the year, police said.
"We've received numerous, and I mean numerous complaints from residents and the business community," in letters and phone calls, about the Foo Chow and a nearby Chinese restaurant, the Chung King at 709 H St. NE, said Deputy Police Chief Carl Profater of the 5th Police District. Police said that complaints about the Chung King have lessened since the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board refused to renew its license in February.
The owners of the restaurants or their spokesmen said that they were not always aware of criminal activity in their restaurants, and that they called police when they suspected it.
There is no indication that the restaurants' owners or employes are involved in any of the criminal activity in the restaurants, police said. Profater said he wishes the owners would call the police more frequently.
Profater said that although police have showed drugs seized during arrests to the owners, "We're not called to the scene unless something serious happens to the employes."
The Foo Chow's owner, Sin Wah Chan, said he did not speak English well enough to respond to a reporter's questions, and referred questions to his daughter Amy Chan, who works at the restaurant.
She said that restaurant employes call the police every time they see patrons using drugs, and that police sometimes don't respond to their calls. She added that the employes, who spend almost all their time behind a metal screen at the back of the restaurant, don't always know what patrons are doing in the public area.
"We don't know what these people do out there," Amy Chan said. "We don't know how to handle these kinds of people. This area is kind of dangerous."
Winston Tsai, a lawyer who has represented both restaurants, said the owners of both have called police when they see crimes being committed. "The owners have done their best to prevent these people from coming in," Tsai said. "The owners don't speak good English. It's difficult to ask the customers to leave."
Robert Hickey, lawyer for the Chung King's owners, said his clients "did what they could" to stop criminal activity at the restaurant, "but they were afraid. They were threatened at times."
Hickey said that is why the owner, Yao Hwan Yin, deals with his customers from behind a bulletproof plastic screen.
Police and residents said that the Chung King restaurant and the sidewalk outside it were for years a center of the area's trade in marijuana and phencyclidine, or PCP. But when the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control board decided in February not to renew the restaurant's license, the dealers who hung out there moved on, police said.
For that reason, residents and police officials are considering mounting a challenge to the Foo Chow's liquor license when the ABC board takes up its renewal later this year. If the Foo Chow did not sell liquor, they said, the crowds of heroin dealers and buyers might go elsewhere.
Fannie Mae Stephens, a vice detective with the 5th Police District, testified before the ABC last year that she used to visit the Chung King on investigations at least three times a week, and backed up residents' testimony that customers there gambled, dealt in drugs and smoked marijuana. She told the ABC board that she had seen customers routinely consuming liquor but that she had "never seen anyone eating Chinese food in this restaurant."
Police said that before the Chung King's liquor license was revoked they made at least 13 arrests of people for smoking or dealing marijuana inside the Chung King in the last year, as well as arrests for numerous other crimes. When police searched customers and booths there, they often found dozens of $5 bags of marijuana and PCP, sometimes as many as 100, one officer said.
Yin told the ABC board through an interpreter that he was usually in the kitchen, and may not have known about arrests that took place in the restaurant's public area. A restaurant employe, James Chew, said before the ABC board that he called the police each time he saw patrons smoking marijuana or gambling.
Yin has appealed the decision to revoke his liquor license with the D.C. Court of Appeals. During an interview at the restaurant, empty at 7:30 one evening recently, Yin pointed to a handwritten sign on the wall, "No smoking or selling marijuana." Yin said he abides by the law.