As Larry La sat in a cushy booth at Meiwah, just days before his West End restaurant was scheduled to close after nearly 20 years in business, the walls around him began to disappear, and the owner was lost in memory. He was back in a weather-beaten fishing boat packed with refugees trying to flee Communist-controlled Vietnam in 1978. The vessel, old and wooden, was not built to accommodate the 292 souls crammed into it. Nor was it designed for long-distance journeys such as the one from the former Saigon to Kuching in East Malaysia.
The trip was supposed to take no more than five days, La remembered, which was already an eternity to those trying to navigate the dangerous waters of the South China Sea during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The passengers could only sit or stand. They had no place to stretch out and sleep in a boat that measured only 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. They lived in constant fear of the weather and Thai pirates, who terrorized, killed and raped countless refugees who were on their way to a better life.
On the fifth day at sea, La approached the captain and asked when the boat might reach land. The captain had no answer. “I said, ‘Captain, are we okay?’ ” La recalled. “He couldn’t say that we’re not okay. But his reaction was not good. You could tell right away that he was worried, too.”
Eight excruciating days after they left Vietnam, La and his family — father, mother, siblings, uncles and in-laws — finally landed in Malaysia, their voyage slowed painfully by the weight of all those passengers. This stopover, however, was just the beginning of the family’s odyssey. They would spend 15 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before finding someone to sponsor them in the United States. The sponsor turned out to be the First Baptist Church of Erwin. As in Erwin, Tenn., a tiny town in the northeast section of the state.
“People had never seen any foreigner before in their lives,” La said.
As La spooled out his life story over plates of garlic spinach and Peking duck, one thing became obvious: At 62, he is a survivor. The man behind the Meiwah Restaurant Group survived the Vietnam War as a boy. (“If you heard the explosion that means you’re still alive.”) At age 22, he survived that harrowing trip across the South China Sea as part of a wave of refugees known as Vietnamese boat people. (He had to help toss the body of a dead passenger overboard.) And throughout his life he has survived — no, he has thrived — in settings where he was the outsider, including the restaurant business, where he started as a manager more than three decades ago. (“I didn’t even know much about restaurants at all.”)
Like all survivors, La owes a large debt to luck, or fate, or whatever you want to call the miracle of avoiding murderous pirates on the high seas. But he has also developed a skill that has helped him cope with almost any situation. It’s a talent that he demonstrated time and again on this Tuesday afternoon at the faded elegance of Meiwah, his spacious, two-level Chinese-American restaurant that would permanently shut its doors on May 15, one more victim of a landlord who wanted to jack up the rent.
The skill? La has perfected the art of paying attention to people. They, in turn, pay attention to him and his restaurants.
Case in point: Only an anecdote or two deep into his personal tale, La had to take a break. He needed to greet Luigi Buitrago-Ho, a former Washingtonian who has been dining at La’s restaurants for more than 30 years, dating back to City Lights of China in Dupont Circle, where La started in the hospitality business in 1988 without a lick of experience. Buitrago-Ho said he delayed a business trip to Panama to dine one last time at Meiwah. He drove down from New York that morning, he said, to meet colleagues for lunch. He took a moment to brag on La.
“He changed Chinese cuisine in this city,” Buitrago-Ho explained.
La made Chinese cuisine “upscale, affordable, accessible and beautiful,” Buitrago-Ho said. “This was not a regular Chinese restaurant.”
Still, Buitrago-Ho had a complaint to register: He never got a framed photo on the wall. As regulars knew, Meiwah’s walls were famously adorned with dozens of snapshots of La with senators, actors and other politicians and celebrities who had dined at the restaurant. There were more photos than there were spaces to hang them. Many more pictures reside on Meiwah’s website.
“I’m one of the regulars,” Buitrago-Ho said, by way of explanation for his absence. “I’m not a celebrity.”
“No,” La countered, “we have more regular people than celebrities” on the wall.
La’s easy interactions with Buitrago-Ho — the mutual respect, the teasing, the mild rebuke — are part of the restaurateur’s gifts. La can navigate his way around anyone who walks into his restaurants. It could be Michelle Obama, back when she was first lady and ate at Meiwah with her daughters. Or it could be a small-town tourist from Montana. Either way, La is always ready to engage.
It helps that La is naturally curious. He reads a lot. He wants to know a little something about every state, so he can chat with customers from across the country. (When I tell him I was born in Omaha, he instantly coughs up the name of Warren Buffett. “We even went to see his house,” La said. “It’s a very common house.”) But La is a political animal, too. He watches a lot of C-SPAN.
“I’m one of the few Chinese Americans who watches C-SPAN,” he explained. “Not many of them do. It’s so boring.”
His ability to remember facts and faces has served him well in his profession. Over the years, he has spotted members of Congress who might otherwise escape notice. Like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) or former senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, politicians who are not exactly household faces beamed into our homes when the president delivers a televised address from the Capitol.
“That’s a big thing in D.C.,” La said. “If a senator or congressman, they walk in, they expect you to recognize them. If you don’t, that’s not good.”
But a good memory alone does not explain La’s ability to maneuver gracefully in his world. La indicates that his outsider status has, in part, driven his deep curiosity about others. He has been something of an outsider from the day he was born in Vietnam to ethnic Chinese parents, who fled their native country when the Communists assumed control. He was raised as a child of two cultures: He can speak Vietnamese as well as several Chinese dialects. But when he moved to Tennessee as a young man, La had almost nothing in common with his neighbors. His approach to the new surroundings, he said, was to become a student of Southern culture. He learned the customs. He ate cornbread and fried chicken with gravy. He strove to see the world through their eyes.
“I would always stick my hand out and say, ‘Good morning,’ ” La said. “If they shake my hand, they shake my hand. If they don’t, they don’t. I don’t feel bad because I understand their skepticism. They’ve lived there a long, long time, and here I’m that guy that comes in.”
His approach — part code-switching, part assimilation, part human empathy — proved successful. La lived in Erwin for only 6 1/2 years, but he maintains close ties to the area, largely because of his connections to nearby East Tennessee State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “After they got to know me, and after I got to know them, we became very, very good friends,” La said of the people in Erwin.
Back in his own dining room, La said he isn’t about to retire his unique set of people skills. In fact, he can’t. He still has another location of Meiwah in Chevy Chase, Md., on the second floor of a rather corporate-looking building on Willard Avenue. But he also hopes to resurrect the flagship Meiwah at another, still undetermined, location in Washington. Commercial real estate brokers are already bombarding him with potential sites. He’s even toying with the idea of expanding his menu to include more traditional dishes from Sichuan or Xi’an or some other province, depending on what chefs he can bring over from China.
Such additions would represent something of a role reversal for La: They would be a tacit acknowledgment that Americans are paying attention to Chinese culture, including its cuisine, and not just the other way around. Yet La isn’t convinced that his diners would desire a restaurant totally devoted to, say, the hot-and-numbing Sichuan dishes. He stands by what he once told the Chinese ambassador who had never heard of General Tso’s chicken:
“I said, ‘Ambassador, in the U.S.A., it doesn’t matter if a Chinese restaurant is a small joint, a carryout or a big Chinese restaurant, it has to have General Tso’s chicken.”
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