The price of dinner at the Pinebrook Chinese Restaurant in Hampden is $5 and patience. Traditional laws of economics simply do not hold up here, where often only a handful of customers appear all evening. If more than six people show up simultaneously, the Pinebrook is in trouble. There's one cook, one waitress and no room for hurry.
The Pinebrook has but two employees, owners William Chang and his wife, Yue Chi. William cooks and Yue Chi waits on the patrons. It's simple and sweet.
From the outside, the Pinebrook does not appear much different from a basic neighborhood Oriental restaurant. It's in the 1000 block of W. 36th Street, along "The Avenue" in Hampden, a hardscrabble street of commercial shop fronts right out of a 1940s Warner Brothers grade B crime picture. It is open daily from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
"We are not trying for anything fancy. But good, healthy food served in large portions. That is what we emphasize," said Yue Chi, a woman of few words but with a ready smile. She knows many of her regular customers by first name and memorizes their preferences.
Her husband, who prepares dishes in the Northern Chinese manner, almost never speaks. He's generally in the rear of the building with his utensils and food. At times, he will bring a finished dish to a customer.
Yue Chi says that she and her husband were born in mainland China and their respective parents brought them to Taiwan. Education was of foremost importance to their families.
William has two master's degrees -- one in electronics from Chiao Tung University and a second from the University of Tennessee in computer science. His wife taught high school algebra in Taiwan.
After the Changs immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, job security was foremost on their minds.
"My parents watched other people lose jobs at universities. They decided they wanted their own business," said David Chang, their 22-year-old son, who is in his second year at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He's enrolled in a program where he'll get degrees in medicine and philosophy. "I wanted to study. I didn't like restaurant work," he said.
The Changs' opened the Pinebrook in August 1980. The premises had been vacant. William renovated the inside of the building entirely. He laid the floor, installed the ceiling, made the sign and welded a metal security screen for the building's front.
"We thought the students would like our portions and prices," Yue Chi said. Hopkins' Homewood campus is several blocks away. But early in the week, the Pinebrook is often nearly empty. Business picks up on the weekends.
Indeed, local restaurant critics have raved about the food and the prices, which begin at $3.50 for chicken lo mein. Other popular dishes include Szechuan chicken or pork, vegetable fried rice and chicken with cashews. Egg drop soup is $1.20. There is nothing on the menu above $5.
Just don't expect rapid service. William makes everything by hand and even when you are the only person there, the food takes a while to arrive.
"All the food comes out one plate at a time. I marvel at the place. I don't know how they can do it. It baffles me," said Jim Pierce, a Remington resident and patron who drops by the Pinebrook several times a month.
"I know the time waiting for getting your food is variable. But we went to the Rusty Scupper and had to wait a while to be seated. Some restaurants make it seem like it's fashionable to wait. There's no pretense here," David Chang said.
But most Pinebrook customers don't worry about the wait. When a customer's stomach began to groan one recent visit, he merely got up, walked down 36th Street to a convenience store, bought some crackers and munched on them until his Mongolian beef arrived.