DRACUT — It is a New England staple — Chinese food on New Year’s Eve — and nobody seems to know why.
One theory holds that the tradition started years ago when Chinese restaurants were the only establishments open on the holidays. But Chinese food on New Year’s Eve makes perfect sense.
It’s easy to serve. There’s no preparation for the host. It can be eaten hot or cold, and, in the case of a giant Pu Pu Platter, everybody can have his or her personal favorite item.
At the Lo Kai Restaurant in Dracut, expect a long wait to be seated in the dining room while large bags of take-out food — the kind of paper bags with rope handles — are stacked up in every available space inside the foyer.
Owner Mike Hui has never taken a New Year’s Eve off.
“I started as a busboy when Johnny Choy owned the Lo Kai in 1972,” says Hui, who bought the popular Lakeview Avenue restaurant in 1996. “We open at 11:30 in the morning and we are busy until 1 a.m. Especially on New Year’s Eve.”
Q: Is there any night of the year that is bigger than New Year’s Eve?
A: “No. None bigger. For us there are three important busy days: New Year’s Eve, then Christmas, then Mother’s Day.”
Q: How many orders do you usually fill on New Year’s Eve?
A: “More than 100 orders. For sure. Maybe 200. Maybe more. Hard to tell. The restaurant is full all night and the take out is busy. I would say I think the take out business is a little more busy. I usually bring on eight to 10 extra people to help.”
Q: How far ahead would I have to call to get my order in?
A: “Some people call about a week before. The majority calls about two days before. Some people even pay ahead of time so all they have to do is come in and get their food.
“If they call that day, we still take their order but we ask them what time do they want it. Sometimes we’re so busy I could tell them, ‘sorry, forget it,’ but I don’t do that to a customer. Our busiest time is between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. I ask them, ‘Can you come in earlier than 5 or after 7?'”
Q: What is the most popular menu item that people order on New Year’s Eve?
A: “Appetizers. We even have a special menu for New Year’s Eve with all the appetizers on it, what I call American Chinese food — teriyaki, chicken wings, spare ribs, goldfingers. We sell so much fried rice and chow mein.”
Q: What’s the secret to keeping the food warm?
A: “OK. You come on time and you get your food hot. We bring it out and you have it. Hot. But at home, people like to use the microwave. In the old days it was the oven. But now, house parties are different. They open the food and they have Sterno cans and put the food in the tray to heat it up. It’s delicious.”