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Nelson, Ashley, Mom (Linda), Me (Robert), William and Mary. My 52nd birthday lunch. Sam Woo Restaurant – Irvine, CA.


The week of my birthday (25th September) found my son and daughter both unavailable. Ashley was in Europe, on a three-country trip that included the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland. Nelson had his usual ministry-related commitments and a wedding in Arizona in which he sang vocal solo as the bride was walking towards the altar. We finally were able to schedule a lunch yesterday at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants – Sam Woo in Irvine.

The same day we were able to finalize the get-together, my artist friend William made a trip to Barnes & Noble. We bumped into each other outside the bookstore. It must have been destined. Our get-togethers usually only includes my mother and my two kids. Just the same, William has been one of the most reliable sources of support for my work the last few months. An invitation was immediately extended to him. A quick call to his girlfriend, Mary, cemented our schedules agreeing to meet at the restaurant the next day. It was for me a much-needed escape and an opportunity to partake in some comfort food.

Comfort food is an experience around dining that provides nostalgia or sentimental value. For me dining at Sam Woo makes for an accurate phrase, with a slight misnomer. It often ends up being a gluttonous affair with innards-busting discomfort when everything is said and done. Imagine eating breakfast, lunch and part of dinner in one sitting. That usually means spending the rest of the day feeling lethargic (or content).

For a city where there is a huge Chinese-American population, Hong Kong style cuisine is an indigenous part of their gastronomic offering. It is said that if you want to find great ethnic food, search out the places frequented by the locals. Stepping through their doors will instantly give you a sense of precisely that, a place where the ethnic Chinese go. The dining room is always filled with conversations in their native tongue, several dialects at that. The inviting scent of the cooking that escapes the kitchen will also remind even a modest traveler of jaunts to any of the Chinatowns around the world.

Introducing gastronomic adventures is a serious responsibility among family and friends. William introduced me to a Korean restaurant last year, which became a favorite destination. Up until that point he and Mary have never experienced eating shrimp whole with its shell still on, fried and stomach tolerant though it may be. A quick demonstration by picking up a whole shrimp from my plate with a pair of chopsticks and biting it in half to include the crustacean’s head ushered the same. William later shared that it was the best Chinese food that he has ever had in Orange County. Without saying anything Mary seemed pleased with her dining experience, as well.

Waiting for us outside was a gift that was many months in the making. Last Thanksgiving Day, William painted a portrait of me sitting with my acoustic bass in a courtyard at the town center. It captured my condition as a homeless man very well, with my unshaven appearance while wearing torn jeans. It was important for me to somehow acquire it from him at some point, as it was one of the best reminders of this chapter of my life. That feeling was shared with him knowing it was unaffordable for me, especially considering his art sells for several hundreds of dollars. He promised to give me first right of refusal in the event of a sale. Eventually, he reduced the price in several increments until he eventually told me that he decided to just gift it to me.

The piece was in his van waiting for me to take delivery. Unfortunately, the four of us all drove together leaving no room for a painting that size. He and my daughter exchanged numbers with plans for her to pick it up and store it at her home at a later date. It gave William a few days to apply a layer of varnish on the finished piece, which hopefully will hang prominently in my future home some time hence.

It was a great birthday.