Every Monday night it plays out the same way. While tables full of Chinese families share duck and noodle platters in the dining room next door, Suzy Wong's grittier patrons take over the lounge. Old Town hipsters and weathered Chinatown residents spend hours wedged into the quiet bar's cushy booths, picking through garlicky mountains of veggie chow mein and slowly drifting away into their own "Moon River" Muzak comas.
But the serene mood is shattered once bartender George Galik's gunshot grumble ricochets around the wood-paneled space. "What drink you have?" he asks in an Hungarian accent as brusque and businesslike as his button-down shirt and bow tie.
The 73-year-old bartender has worked here only since last September. But that voice is familiar. That's because Galik is a Chinatown legend. He previously manned Hung Far Low's crimson-lit bar for 16 years. He managed Rickshaw Charlie's, another downtown haunt, for most of the 1970s. For many Portlanders, his unmistakable voice can trigger memories of late nights and drunken brawls quicker than a sniff of whiskey.
It generally takes three tries to get Galik to talk, if you're lucky. In fact, many Hung Far Low regulars still speak of his brush-offs with respectful awe.
Your first overture will be met with a deep, hawking coal miner's cough that sounds like a wad of wet laundry being fired from a cannon. Your second will be stalled with a negating shoulder jerk. "People think bartenders tell stories," he scoffs, plopping ice into a glass for a monstrously stiff Long Island Iced Tea. "That is not a bartender. That is an entertainer. I am not an entertainer."
But on the third try, he just might tell you about Portland's Barbary Coast, the 650-seat hotel nightclub where he worked in the 1960s.
"Duke Ellington and Harry James would play there," Galik says. "It had a 30-piece band and a choreographer and a stage as big as this entire club. That was on a Sunday night."
He can tell you about serving drinks to stars like Peter Falk and William Shatner. He can tell you what Chinatown was like a quarter-century ago, when the blocks that now boast a Caribbean restaurant and strip clubs were a secret oasis for Portland's Asian communities. Most of all, Galik, who trained as an apprentice and journeyman bartender in Eastern Europe before fleeing the Communists in 1955, can tell you what it is like to be the man behind the bar.
"This is a strange business," he says "To you people, a bartender is only a good strong drink." And then, catching himself engaging in conversation or spilling industry secrets, he stops. "Ach. It would take six months to explain it to you."
Try again next week.
Suzy Wong's Seven Stars, 205 NW 4th Ave., 228-2888.