Love, Pot Stickers, and Robots in Santa Barbara
Getting Served by Shadu at Meet Up Chinese Cuisine
First, I overheard it at a party: “The new Chinese restaurant has robot waiters.”
I scoffed, of course, though I love me some robot movies. So, I’m intrigued. And the crazy claim happened to coincide with my curiosity about the Meet Up place, a new Chinese lunch and dinner spot in the little strip mall that time forgot near the corner of Modoc and Las Positas. The place it replaced wasn’t great, but it had a Hong Kong core and sentimental value: My late father-in-law loved it, and we had many ruminating lunches there. (Try not to think of two cows.)
That’s the robot place, someone else said.
When I finally investigated, it looked not high-tech enough, but pleasant. I ordered from a very kind and friendly human, and just about the time the appetizers should arrive, I heard a rumbling coming toward me. Yikes. A stylized female automaton bore the steamed dumplings, and in a very loud voice — frightening the clearly stoned kids at the next table into nervous laughter — she told us to take the food from her tray and touch her hand so she could get back to work. We grabbed the dumplings, and the robot (named Shadu, by the way) retreated.
I suppose it’s enough to inform you all that there is a Chinese restaurant in town with a robot staff. Quick calls to my Los Angeles family and friends yielded no similar claims, though my son’s sweetheart said that the Amazon warehouse was patrolled by rudimentary bots. If we can’t quite be cutting-edge in the kitchen, I suppose waiter/waitress innovation ought to do.
But the fact is, the Meet Up is very good. They don’t have lunch specials, but they do have a paper menu divided up usefully between appetizers (the dumplings were superb), soups, salads, American Chinese food, and Hot Plates, which I was assured are traditional Chinese preparations.
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The difference? Well, take twice-cooked pork on an American Chinese menu. It will be sliced pork, cabbage, bell peppers, and mushrooms. The traditional version is pork belly and green onions fried flat with spice and numbing pepper. Certainly, the traditional Chinese menu has more innards and other stuff we gringos are not used to devouring. But there is other stuff; you don’t have to order anything that squeamishes your sensibilities, do you?
The dishes I ate all felt like they had an extra dimension — a multi-versal appeal, if you will — deriving from the subtle combinations of ginger, varieties of hot pepper, ubiquitous fermented black bean, and other real flavors, not as sweetened as American Chinese dishes usually run.
There have been two successful Chinese food revolutions in my America. The first happened in early 1970 here, with the coming of the Peking Restaurant on Upper State, which introduced a whole slate of authentic dishes from hot and sour soup to Kung Pao chicken, to Barbareño, who thought chop suey and egg foo young were the national dishes of the vast land across the Pacific. Beginning about 10 years ago in Isla Vista and on Milpas Street, a few places have opened that appeal mostly to Chinese diners, serving the unusual as well as delicate fare like dumplings filled with spinach and herbs. This new wave isn’t catching on like crazy yet. The Isla Vista restaurant got watered down and the best of the bunch, The Lucky Dragon in the Goleta Target mall, packed its tent and went during COVID.
But don’t let time and opportunities pass — the revolution needs supporters. Let the Meet Up place feed you something unexpected, delivered by robot: a taste of a more delicious future.
2251 Las Positas Rd.; (805) 507-7777; meetuprestaurant.com
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