Tommy Wong: ‘Everyone is like your family’

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“Number three!” the maitre d’ growled.

We were standing outside Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown. With college looming, my boys have been ticking off must-visit restaurants before being consigned to university food service fare: High Five Ramen. Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder. Cross-Rhodes in Evanston. And now Tony Hu’s flagship restaurant.

We had “14″ on a square of cardboard. A 40-minute wait.

“Why don’t you go explore the mall,” I said to the family, “I’ll wait here.”

A ploy to get them out of the way — my boys cringe when their dad takes a picture — because I wanted to photograph the maitre d’, who had a very distinctive look.Large Harry Caray eyeglasses. An orange polo with the collar turned up. Dripping with bling. A sparkly earring the size of a pea. A wide jade bracelet on one wrist, an enormous gold watch on the other. Eight rings, two to a finger. A pendant. His name, “Tommy,” on a white tag.

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“Do you mind if I take your picture?” I asked tentatively because of his brusk growl. He posed for a pair of demure shots, hand on hip, and then raced back to the maitre d’ station and returned with a black fan, which he held in a variety of tai chi poses, one knee in the air, arms back.

“I am the teacher!” Tommy Wong exclaimed. “I am the master!” He vanished into the restaurant and came back with a sword.

The Chicago restaurant scene goes through various trends: sushi wanes, steakhouses blossom like mushrooms after a rain.But one aspect of the eating out experience has fallen from popularity and shows no risk of returning: the colorful host. He — and it was always a man — added to the dining drama, picking up where the food left off.

It could be a maitre d’ — the Old World charm of Arturo Petterino at the Pump Room. It could be a chef. The beef Wellington at the Bakery on Lincoln Avenue was justifiably lauded, but the moment you really waited for was when Louis Szathmary, looking exactly like a chef in a Maurice Sendak children’s book with his snowy mustache, tall toque and ample stomach, would make the rounds.

The apex of the form was Petros Kogiones at Dianna’s Opaa on Halsted Street. I never went anywhere else in Greektown. How could I? Because more than flaming saganaki, which he claimed to invent, we wanted Petros, the lanky host welcoming us with shouts of “Cousin!” kissing our girlfriends, quieting down the restaurant to perform what was in essence a one-man floor show. On the very rare nights you went to Dianna’s and Petros wasn’t there, you felt robbed.

All gone. I suppose a few remain: Cesar Izquierdo, doing his spinning top tricks at Taste of Peru on North Clark Street. The fact he also feeds you is an added bonus.

And now Tommy Wong. A couple days later I sat down to get to know him better, ortry. No sooner did we settle at a table in the back then he hopped up again.

“Excuse me,” he said, hurrying to the door.

“Hi, welcome, how are you? Four ladies?”

Then he was back.

“I’ve done this job 35 years,” he said. “I was born in Hong Kong.”

How does he see his role at the restaurant?

“You do the job,” he said. “Like a family. Everyone is like your family. Your grandmother or brother or sister, who likes your food and he likes your service. I’m very happy to see everybody, I say, ‘Hi! How are you?’ Like a brother or sister or father or mother. I like to make people happy, come here for lunch and think, ‘I like Tommy’ I want people to remember me and keep coming back and do business.”

As a hobby, he is part of the society that puts on the Chinese New Year’s Parade — he operates the lion’s head, he said. Wong is48, married, one child, 15.

Before I could ask the teen’s gender, he was gone again. I sat for a long time.

Wong eventually returned, redolent of Baisha cigarettes. He seemed a little surprised I was still there.

“This is for the newspaper?” he asked. I admitted it was. He left again, returning with a takeout menu, which he pressed into my hands, pointing to the address. “2172 S. Archer Avenue.” There seemed nothing left to do but leave, so I did.

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