‘Burbalicious: What I Ate in Sunnyvale

Lewis Cheng (left); Chicken lo mein (right) photos by Desiree Espada

In conjunction with July’s Best Suburbs issue, I’m traveling to 10 different ‘burbs in the DFW area for a semi-weird cross-city food tour. I’ll be documenting all my finds in these ‘Burbalicious posts that’ll be peppered throughout June and July. If you feel like your suburb deserves a shot at some SideDish love, email me and I’ll ask my Magic 8 ball if I should go. Last time, I went to Irving.

I didn’t think it was the brightest idea when Jason, the Web Editor, suggested that I find an ethnic restaurant in Sunnyvale, the whitest town in North Texas. Mary Dews, a previous counselor for the Dallas Tenants Association in the mid-1980s, filed a lawsuit against the city this year for perpetuating racial segregation and Sunnyvale’s maintenance of its all-white character. Memories of sitting across from skinheads in St. Petersburg’s subways suddenly came to mind when Jason told me to travel to Sunnyvale. It was one of the last suburbs on my list to visit. I dreaded the trip.

I figured it’d make big headlines if someone killed an Asian woman in Sunnyvale (or at least make it onto Frontburner), and Jason would inevitably feel terrible guilt for making me go there. That’s the worse that could happen, right? Yelp led me to a Wai Cafe, a restaurant that serves Chinese food and burgers. Entirely skeptical of this concept, Desiree and I drove 15 miles east of Dallas towards 3839 North Belt Line Road where we found the most fascinating Chinese restaurant I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting… in the whitest town of North Texas.

The alien fortress aka Wai Cafe

As soon as we stepped out of my car, the two of us burst out laughing. Did we arrive at an alien fortress? Did Martians land in Sunnyvale instead of Roswell? A double take revealed that the shiny metal exterior reflecting all the sun’s rays was actually Wai Cafe. Here, in the middle of Sunnyvale next to Town East Golf Cart & Driving Range, was a sit-down Chinese restaurant with a drive-through menu carefully handwritten in red ink. It listed everything from egg rolls to cheeseburgers. “We have to get some of that ice cream sundae,” said Des. “I think I recognize those crackers from the dollar store.”

Cheeseburger wearing a burqa (left); fishy tablecloth (right)
Drive through menu

Inside Wai Cafe we found Lewis Cheng, one of the goofiest men I’ve ever encountered in real life, not just on TV. He’s the Chinese version of Michael Cera – quiet, odd sense of humor, and slightly offbeat in the most endearing way. When Wai Cafe first opened in June 2011, owners Mr. and Mrs. Cheng (that’s what Lewis calls them) hired Chang a month later. He jots down take-out orders, pokes his head through the drive through window, and serves sit-down diners when they’re brave enough to venture into that rectangular tin can. It sounds busy, but Des and I were the only people eating inside the entire two hours we were there.

“I’m sure if a tornado came, this place would be gone,” said my astute photographer as she picked up grains of vegetable fried rice with takeout chopsticks. After glancing at the “Dollas” menu with $1 chicken nuggets and $1 corn dogs, and even after flipping through an entire album of Lewis’ photographic documentation of each menu item, I settled with ma po tofu ($5.39) and chicken lo mein ($5.19). They both tasted more or less as I’d expected for Chinese food in a predominantly white town: very heavy on the soy sauce. Still, it was at least better than Panda Express and just as cheap, too. For a $16 tab and two hours of amusement, this definitely beat a dull steakhouse dinner.

Booths (left); watery honey dew drink (right)

The food is unremarkable at Wai Café, but the experience of sitting inside a foil-covered warehouse eating Chinese food and cheeseburgers is bizarre and surreal. “I kind of feel like I’m on the set of Roseanne,” Desiree muttered under her breath. Our eyes flitted from Two and a Half Men on the old tv set to the colorful tablecloth covered with fish. The A/C was blowing incredibly well, probably because the struggling golfers we spied through the windows sometimes came in to get a bubble tea or fruit drink. Most people order take-out, said Lewis, which explains why he was hugging a phone to his ear the entire time.

Ma po tofu

At Wai Café, Sunnyvale’s citizens can bark through the phone and create the oddest combinations of food. Dinner might consist of broccoli beef with a side of French fries. Or a chicken bacon ranch sandwich with egg drop soup. It’s mix-and-match Chinese and American food at a drive-through/sit-down Chinese and burger restaurant – the kind of place people should add to their bucket lists entitled “Top Ten Things To Do Around Dallas Before I Move Away or Die.” Wai Cafe is where food legends are born. “This place is photo gold,” said Des as she clicked away on her camera. “You have to live it to see it. You just can’t imagine something like this.”

Our unfinished goods (top); homemade signs (bottom left); the set of Roseanne (bottom right)