On another endless summer night on the patio at Dahlak, as the aroma of mango hookah and the nervous energy of Tinder dates permeated the air of the West Philly haunt, the regulars considered their options: Where can I get a loosie? Do I really have to walk three blocks to get chicken wings at 2 a.m.? Will they even be good?
Lucky’s, the beloved “Chinese store” next door, the one peddling ice cream and condoms and pizza rolls behind bulletproof glass, the one that had become a late-night Baltimore Avenue institution, had been closed for a week. The wound was still fresh.
“I really thought I’d have a chance to have one last sesame tofu,” lamented Bianca Fiscella, a Lucky’s regular.
After 10 years under its current management, the Chinese takeout closed abruptly at the end of July. “I’m devastated," said a woman named Izzy hanging out in the parking lot at Dahlak with her Shih Tzu. “It don’t even feel right.” The 29-year-old remembered how, as a teenager at West Catholic, she and her friends would always go to Lucky’s — or Lee’s Deli on the same block— after school got out. She was suddenly craving a pizza roll.
One night it was business as usual, the next, the man behind the counter at Lucky’s — known to his customers as “Bob,” “Bow,” “Lucky” — was struggling to load a fridge into his car.
Bob told his customers, in his limited English and trademark brusque style, that he was closing because the rent had gone up. West Philly responded in true West Philly form — that is, weirdly, but with heart: Someone arranged a candlelight vigil outside the store. Another person posted a sign asking for folks to share their recollections of Lucky’s for a “memorial zine.”
Sure, it was a Chinese store, but it was their Chinese store.
Bob, the 40-year-old owner, whose real name is Bo Guang Zhu, moved to Philadelphia 10 years ago with his wife and then-10-year-old daughter from New York’s Chinatown, when the opportunity to run a takeout opened up. Some of his relatives already ran their own takeouts in Philly and helped show him the ropes. (An English teacher gave him the name “Bob” and he seemed amused by all the nicknames his customers had given him.)
Zhu moved to the States from China’s Fujian province, from where many Philly Chinatown entrepreneurs hail, about two decades ago. Coming to Philly felt like settling down to him, as he previously worked in the more unstable construction industry, he said through his daughter, who translated the interview in their rowhome on a South Philly side street. Their home, where they moved a few years ago after living above Lucky’s, still carried the trappings of the restaurant: stacks of tall styrofoam cups in a plastic bin, a microwave, an industrial-sized paper bag packed tightly with “GLUTAMATE,” as the label read.
His 10-year lease expired Aug. 1 and business had been slowing, so he couldn’t handle the rent increase. (Attempts to reach the landlord, listed as Ly Tony Chau in Philadelphia property records, were unsuccessful.) He wasn’t sure what he’d do next, other than spend time with his daughters — a 7-year-old whom customers doted on, as they watched her learn to walk and talk along the avenue, and Meng, who was about to start her last year at Drexel University, to which she earned a full scholarship. She’s studying biomedical engineering.
While the uncertainty of the future weighed on him, the closure of the store was a welcome break: He ran Lucky’s seven days a week, from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., although it was more like 3 a.m. on the weekends, according to his customers. The only day Lucky’s ever closed was Thanksgiving. Besides family members who helped out in the earlier days, it was only Zhu and his brother, the cook, who worked in the shop.
It could get crazy in there, late at night, Zhu said. Sometimes drunk people would stand up on the few tables and chairs in the store. The next day they’d come in to apologize. Though Chinese store owners can be targets for violence, Zhu didn’t have much negative to say about the topic, citing the presence of the University City District patrols.
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He mostly wanted to talk about how the West Philly neighbors had a knack for showing up when he needed help, like the time there was a power outage and he couldn’t get the garage-style door on his shop to come down at closing time. Some people came by with a flashlight offering to help. And the day after he closed, when he was packing up the restaurant’s fridge into his car, people came by with bungee cords to stabilize it.
He was surprised to hear that so many people would miss him. He recalled returning from an errand and being confused by the candles set up outside his store. He ended up getting rid of them. Were they for him? his daughter asked. Zhu flashed a tiny smile upon learning the answer.
It isn’t necessarily the end of Lucky’s on the avenue, as takeouts frequently change hands. Zhu himself inherited the store, its menu and signage. On West Willy, the popular Facebook group, posters mused about the future of the location: Artisanal mayo shop? A bar that serves only celery-flavored La Croix? (Zhu did not, for the record, sell La Croix.)
The transition post-Lucky’s will be important, said James Wright, a former corridor manager in West Philly who now runs economic development at the People’s Emergency Center. If the next business in that location is a similar concept, it’s usually better for the neighborhood and the business. He said: “It doesn’t send that signal, like, ‘There it is! Gentrification! We see it!’” And it doesn’t alienate former customers.
An affordable, late-night spot is important on a strip, he said, because it supports nighttime activity and keeps more eyes on the street, making a neighborhood safe. And he gets it: He claims Choy Wong as his Chinese store, a few blocks west of Lucky’s.