"Hey, dad," calls out Margerie Poon. "He wants to hear your life's story!" The interview passes from daughter to father, and Jimmy Poon begins to recount how he came to New York City in 1972, washed dishes 16 hours a day, and spent his spare time learning to cook. "Cooks," he explained, "only work 10 hours."
I suspect that people who resent immigrants are aware, on some level, that they can't compete, even with a stacked deck, against guys like Jimmy Poon. The American Dream isn't a myth if you're smart, assertive, and willing to work constantly. And that's what Poon was and is.
In 1974, he moved to an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. Two years later, he was back in the Big Apple, learning French cooking. Had he learned much cooking in Hong Kong? "At home," Poon explains, "my mom fed me. I couldn't cook an egg."
Poon came to Rochester in 1978 to help a friend run The Imperial. There, he learned enough to open The Great Wall in Mount Hope Plaza. Eventually, he brought his family over and opened the House of Poon with his brother (who recently bought him out).
This 30-year odyssey culminates in K.C. Tea & Noodles, a restaurant that oozes quality and savvy. Jimmy's wife's name is Ky, and his Chinese name is Cheung, accounting for the "K" and the "C." The noodles are a nod to his Hong Kong roots, but are also good business; they're going over well at other places in town (Ming's and the lesser Aja Noodles), and the market isn't close to saturated. The tea refers to "bubble" teas, which have been trendy in places like San Francisco for some time, and which Poon is introducing here.
Bubble tea is, frankly, a bit goofy: sweetened tea, with or without milk, ice, or fruit, and black balls of tea-filled tapioca and potato starch floating around. You use a fat straw to slurp up the bubbles with the tea. It's quite the textural experience, and not for everybody. My kids were freaked out, and the people my boss took out for "pearl tea" on Clement Street in San Francisco two years ago were appalled. But the other day, four of my coworkers all dug it. Poon's son, Sing, says four out of five people love them, but that's probably a bit of marketing.
With five categories of six to 12 drinks each, it would be hard to get bored. Bubble shredded ice is blended fruit, green tea, ice, and just a bit of sugar. Mango made for a fragrant affair, with the piney fruit and jasmine bubbles. If you want to avoid caffeine, bubble milkshakes are the ultimate un-smoothie. If the obvious flavors like banana and strawberry don't entice, go off the beaten path for avocado, coconut milk (fabulous), or even taro. K.C. offers several straight teas with bubbles, iced or hot, and an unblended version of the fruited iced teas.
You could go only for bubble tea, but that would be wrong. The noodle menu isn't as broad as Ming's, but the quality of the food is exceptional. I like substantial noodles, and ho phun, a wide rice noodle, hit the spot. Poon's carefully-marinated flank steak was bursting with flavor and surprisingly tender for that cut. That dish is a reasonable $6.55 after 3 p.m., but all noodle dishes are a steal at $4.95 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Like at Ming's, you pick a noodle and a meat, specify stir fry or soup, and sit back and enjoy. In addition to ho phun, you can also get thin or wide egg noodles, rice stick (mei phun), Japanese udon (a substantial wheat noodle), or spinach noodles. All are fresh from New York. Jimmy Poon used to be in the seafood business, which results in fabulous shrimp and scallops. In the udon soup, shrimp and scallops were dusted with corn meal and flash-fried before being put on top. At the $4.95 price, it's a run-don't-walk deal. The soups are made with fresh chicken stock, but Poon will substitute for vegetarians.
K.C. Tea & Noodles has just two counters inside. On nice days, you can sit at a table outside. It's stylish, clean, and obviously well-run; Jimmy Poon knows exactly what he's doing. This is a test run ("I want to pass myself first," Poon says), and if successful, he might open a larger place with some kind of deck. With great, unique food at amazing prices and superior service and style, it's a lock.
K.C. Tea & Noodles, 360 Park Avenue, 271-1061. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 10:30 p.m.
Mythos Mediterranean Grill has opened at 175 North Water Street, where the Grill at Water Street used to be. There is no connection to Mythos Cafe in Brockport, although the Costas brothers did have a restaurant in Brockport. Their new venture retains the elegance established by the previous occupants, but with casual food. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., and Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. 232-7240.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.