The Little Chef Still Afloat in Waves of Changes in Ocean Beach

by on August 18, 2017 · 13 comments

in Ocean Beach

A small business feels the heat in OB’s changing landscape

By Brett Warnke

Maryanne Hsu does not stop moving.

Her restaurant, The Little Chef on Newport Avenue, is a busy reef of patrons.  There are a few tables occupied as I entered and a teenager wearing an Ohio shirt who flung a fortune cookie to his friend.  Both quit their tables with stray grains of fried rice lying on dirty plates, as empty as he left the tip jar.  Maryanne quickly tidied up.

Maryanne Hsu. Photo by Brett Warnke

Her Little Chef is little bigger than a Point Loma heiress’s closet, but it is a delicious local spot where she has spent roughly 65 hours of each of the 7 days a week she works since she immigrated to San Diego in 1990.

As rents rise in Ocean Beach large corporations like Target plot to alter the town’s landscape, small-businesses like Maryanne’s are feeling the pinch.  Locally, it is part of a two-pronged threat to the current community of Ocean Beach — vacation rentals and a “re-development” that favors the hip, the large, and the young.  This transformation is part of a larger national story, one where big-business monopolies dictate terms, control the destinies of entire states, and accelerate the working lives of people struggling to keep up and make a living with a measure of independence.

But Maryanne has felt larger social forces pushing on her since she was born in Taiwan to Chinese refugees who fled the Communist victory in the long civil war that ended in 1949.

As I perched myself on one of her stools and removed my notepad (in that self-important way reporters do), I realized my own sloth and Maryanne’s swiftness.

I may be thirty-five years younger, but before I had creaked open my notebook Maryanne had taken a phone order, delivered two steaming take-outs arriving from the kitchen and greeted three additional patrons asking about the menu.  She welcomed them as she had me, with her beautiful skin, straight short-cropped hair, and a perpetual smile that makes you want to order the right side of the menu.

“How did you end up in Ocean Beach?” I asked.

“It was a mistake!” she said.

We both laughed.  Perhaps “accident” would fit even better.  After finishing college, Maryanne and her twin sister bought the Little Chef, previously a donut shop, from Michael Johnson who also rented space next door.  But working with family can be as difficult as working with cooks who didn’t speak the English she was learning in a building whose pipes leaked into the street.

Maryanne was left to run the restaurant herself.

“I didn’t know how to cook,” she said.  “I still don’t know how to cook.”

Maryanne got her recipes in her first months in OB from a Chinese chef and her inexpensive prices have drawn in her local neighbors on Newport.  Her cooks create each meal from scratch, a task that takes more time and effort but keeps the texture and flavor lost in bland buffets. Steve Mallory, whose furniture stores surround Maryanne’s, popped in to drop off a healthy shake for his friend.

“Maryanne is one of the nicest people ever,” he said.  “She gives and gives and gives to people around here.”

Her generosity may come from a life lived as an outsider.  Her Shanghai-raised father served in the military and fought for General Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT or Guomindang but the price for losing the Civil War was exile to Taiwan, and the blacklist.  Even decades after the war, public officials couldn’t return to find work.  And many local Taiwanese—shopkeepers and farmers who spoke their own language—were suspicious of the Chinese newcomers who lived on military bases peppered around the island and treated the mainland Mandarin-speakers with annoyance or outright hostility.

But by the 1970s, many of Maryanne’s generation with the means were leaving for more schooling and opportunity abroad.  Her first husband immigrated to Brazil and she followed her twin sister to California, hoping to continue school and complete a CPA.

“I wanted to be an accountant, but I became The Little Chef slave,” she said with a chuckle.

During the one longer vacation she has taken her life in 1999, Maryanne was able to visit mainland China for the first time.

As we spoke, Maryanne plucked at her shirt that clung to her in the August heat and the wok behind her popped and smothered a high orange flame.  I realized that our interview was the first break Maryanne had taken all day.  The restaurant was still for a moment and filled with the sweet scent of sauces.  I looked at the specials on the board, the massive menu on the wall, and she took a breath under the undulating dragons crawling across her walls.  She smiled pensively, considering the changes in OB since she arrived, and leaned over as if preparing to take my order like she had done dozens of times that day, hundreds of times that week.

“Rent is going up,” she said.  “There used to be more locals and regulars … but now it is tourists.”

Tourists and twenty-somethings are Maryanne’s life now because she lives in the College Area Near SDSU and works on ever-busy Newport.

As I left, the phone rang again and Maryanne waved to me as a small column of hungry patrons pushed their way into The Little Chef.  It was 5:30 p.m. and Maryanne’s day was not over yet.

 

 

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Liesel August 18, 2017 at 1:39 pm

Great article!

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avatar Ron K. August 18, 2017 at 2:44 pm

I have known Maryanne for almost 30 years & she is one of the nicest people I have ever met. Doesn’t matter how busy she is at her restaurant, she greets & treats people with a smile. She is like a mom to me because I was born in Taiwan also, but I grew up in OB & PL throughout my whole life. Maryanne is the best! :)

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avatar Angel August 18, 2017 at 5:26 pm

I remember Marcos and malpos. Her parents perhaps?

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avatar judi August 18, 2017 at 5:41 pm

I frequently get take-out from Maryanne. But Target is not going to make any difference in her clientele. You can’t blame Target for rising rents. They have been rising for some time. (That’s why OB Hardware moved to their new location.

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avatar Molly August 21, 2017 at 3:04 pm

Speaking on OB Hardware, I heard a nasty rumor they may be closing. Anybody else?

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avatar Frank Gormlie August 21, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Back in the late sixties when the Little Chef had the entire corner, I sold a painting to Jerry Lewis, who passed today at the age of 91. I was working at my then-mother-in-law’s art gallery on Shelter Island, when he just walked in, unannounced, by himself, and after a few moments, bought an oil cityscape of NYC for $600 – a lot of money in 1968 or 69. He made me laugh while growing up in the Fifties.

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avatar Barbara Y August 21, 2017 at 3:51 pm

I live Little Chef, and always have since moving here 16 years ago. The food is excellent, and the service outstanding. Always a smiling face greeting you when you walk in. I will continue to enjoy home cooking Chinese style at the Little Chef!

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avatar Jan Michael Sauer August 21, 2017 at 8:51 pm

I loved Jerry Lewis. He made my childhood a lot happier. I remember going to the drive-in movie theater with my dad to see The Nutty Professor . It’s so cool that you got to meet him. He is one of the Gods of the entertainment world. I love you Jerry.

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avatar denine August 21, 2017 at 10:25 pm

We love getting fried rice at Little Chef! Times are hard so I am not able to frequent Little Chef as often as I would like. But hey, now that I think about it, it’s quite affordable and the portions are HUGE and can easily make 2 or more servings.

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avatar Frank Gormlie August 21, 2017 at 10:31 pm

This was more of an interview with the owner of a restaurant than a restaurant review, so, no worries Judi.

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avatar Debbie August 22, 2017 at 10:15 am

Love Little Chef and Maryanne who is always so pleasant.

If locals don’t support this business, they are missing something!

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avatar Dave August 22, 2017 at 11:59 pm

Love Little Chef! Best Americanized Chinese within 20 miles – I’ve been in at least once a month (once a week or more when I was single) for the last dozen or so years – I hope there’s no implication that the shop is in peril here!

I remember years ago when they had to drop the cream cheese wonton and egg soup from their combos due to rising food costs – Maryanne (though I’m horribly introverted and still don’t know her or the other counter lady by name) was so kind and apologetic explaining the change, even though the plates were still crazy cheap for enough food that even a decidedly super-sized guy like me would have tons of leftovers. That made me a customer for life, and I now gladly pay extra for a side of delicious wontons (and paper-wrapped chicken, that’s my wife’s thing), and give thanks to all that is holy for free cups of the best mustard ever.

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avatar triggerfinger August 23, 2017 at 12:13 pm

my wife and I must be the only ones that don’t like their food. We eat Chinese food several days a week, but only go there as a last resort. I think a place with good Chinese, sit down, and a takeout or buffet line option would make a killing here.

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