One a.m., in David’s Mai Lai Wah time, is early. Holding down the northwest corner of 10th and Race for nearly 40 years, the Cantonese restaurant is one of Philadelphia’s most enduring late-night options. Every evening, swarms of tipsy, hungry bargoers and post-shift industry folk cram into David Chan’s charmingly dated dining room to decimate mountains of noodles and rice until the wee hours. Before the rush, though, it’s almost serene, the Muzak soundtrack mingling with clinking tea mugs and murmured conversation to create a sort of Chinatown ASMR.
David’s is far from the only game in town: In Chinatown, there are dozens of restaurants, old and new, scrapping for their whiskey-soaked slice of the post-last-call economy. And while some might perceive David’s severe red neon “Best Food in Town” sign as a haughty boast, Chan believes it’s the key to his longevity. “I’m American, so I can talk like an American,” he says, grinning as he lingers by the service station.
“Look at all these people—they don’t change,” says Chan, gesturing into the kitchen where a blur of knives, woks, fryer baskets and chef’s whites churns. “They don’t leave. They leave when someone dies. Your cooks, you got to treat them well so your style doesn’t change. Take good care of them and they will stay.”
A native of Hong Kong, Chan came to America in 1968 at the age of 14. He started working in restaurants and hasn’t stopped. He recently turned 65 (“I just applied for Medicare!”), but is still a fixture on the floor, typically clocking in around midnight. “I’m a strange person,” he says. “I only sleep two, three hours, I wake up, and then I take a nap in the afternoon. My wife’s on a cruise somewhere. I can’t go!”
Since opening in 1982, David’s has offered a massive menu. Tsingtao, tiki drinks and classic cocktails join typical Chinese-American staples, plus house specialties like beef chow fun and turnover-sized pork dumplings served with sidecars of minced-ginger relish. The late-nighters, though, have specific needs. “They more like the fried stuff,” says Chan, waving a hand out toward the pink tablecloths scattered with piles of salt-and-pepper squid, shrimp and chicken wings that disappear as he speaks. “Look at the tables, they all have it.”
David’s late-night business is in no peril of slowing down, and neither is David. “Not yet,” he says when asked about retirement. “Hopefully, maybe, five more years? I have no idea.” Tonight, there are people to feed and money to make—an opportunity he doesn’t take for granted. “People don’t know how nice this country is, right?” he says. “They complain, but once they go out and see how it is on the other side, they can’t wait to come back.”
On a recent Friday in September, PUNCH did a late-night check-in at David’s Mai Lai Wah—“a beautiful place,” charitably translated—to see who was there and what they were eating.
Hamza H., 24, and Hamza S., 25, Pakistan; Vishnu, 22, India; Elsher, 23, Bucks County, Pennsylvania
How did you end up here?
Vishnu: We came from home. We were just hanging out at the house in West Philly.
How’d you hear about this place?
Hamza S.: I went to Drexel here, and this is the place you go to late-night when you’re drunk and you need food at 3 a.m. And then every time I’m drunk, I’m like, “Let’s venture out to David’s,” but we never got to. [gestures to Hamza H.] But since this man is getting deported in three days, we decided to visit.
Wait, for real?
Hamza S.: Yes, he’s getting deported in three days.
Hamza H.: I was working a job, actually, but the visa thing didn’t work out. There’s a worker’s visa called an H-1B. If that doesn’t get renewed, you’re going home. And ever since, you know, Dear Leader showed up, those rules have gotten stricter. The number of people they give that visa to now has massively shrunk over the past couple years.
How do you feel about it?
Hamza H.: I mean, I’m a little disappointed. But you know, it is what it is. I have to peace out, so I might as well be at peace with it.
Vishnu: First we tried getting him married, but no one would have him.
Hamza H.: Now they’re just roasting me. You gotta disclose that part.
Michael, 30, Chinatown, Philadelphia and Alex, 24, Orlando, Florida
How’d you hear about this place?
Michael: Actually, I’m from here. I used to live down the street, next to Jade Harbor. First time I came here, I was a kid. My dad brought me here, and my uncles would always come here.
Where did you two meet?
Alex: In Florida, in Daytona.
Michael: I lived down there, but I moved back and forth.
Alex: My parents own a restaurant and he came by.
That sounds like the premise of a Netflix rom-com, I love it. How long ago was that?
Alex: A long, long time ago.
Michael: We recently just got together.
Alex: It was like a childhood friend thing.
What brought you into David’s tonight?
Michael: I actually just got off work in Fishtown, at Hiroki. I’m a line cook and do sushi, too. I rotate, but there are a few dishes I really like here.
What are your favorites?
Michael: My go-to dishes [are] what we have here. Ma po tofu is always a staple. Also the fried dumplings with the ginger oil. I also always get the Singapore noodles, just chicken and curry.
What were you doing earlier, Alex?
Alex: It’s First Friday. I went to a ’zine fair in North Philly. The [Market-Frankford El line] station was Huntingdon station… That was my first time going past Girard station. Then I was hanging around Second Street, where all the galleries are. Then I went to Tattooed Mom’s after. I got the poutine. It was good; six bucks for this whole big thing.
Your first time riding the train past Girard? How long have you lived here?
Alex: A month.
What are your impressions of Philadelphia so far?
Alex: I like it. I’m from Orlando, so I wanted to go up in city size.
Any other must-haves when you come here?
Michael: Can’t think of any right now…
Alex: I’m gonna say, this is only my second time here… He’s always talking about chicken wings but out of the two times we’ve been here together, he never orders the chicken wings.
It’s only 1:28 a.m. You can still get the wings!
Lee, 22, and Chelsea, 24, Wilmington, Delaware
What did you get into tonight?
Chelsea: We were down in Old City. We went to Three12 on Market Street.
How was it?
Lee: Eh. [shrugs]
Chelsea: Yeah, that’s why we left early and just came to get food.
When was the first time you ate here?
Chelsea: Here? Probably like high school. 2012, maybe?
What is your go-to order? I see you got the salt-and-pepper wings.
Chelsea: And I got spicy shrimp fried rice. Maybe those are jalapeños in there?
Aside from it being open late, anything else that keeps you coming back?
Lee: No. [laughs]
Do you frequent other late-night places in Chinatown, or just here?
Chelsea: Only David’s. We don’t really know of any others. Have you heard of any other ones?
How is Wilmington nightlife these days?
Chelsea: It’s getting better, though. They’re stepping it up.
Lee: They’re trying…
Chelsea: They’re trying.
Any advice for David’s first-timers?
Chelsea: When you come in, you gotta seat yourself. You gotta take the initiative.
Chris, 34, Point Breeze, South Philadelphia
How long have you been coming here?
Chris: Shoot… Oh, way over, like, 15 years. I just started coming in here. Even during the day, too.
[To Chris’ friend] And you?
Chris’ friend: [mouth full] I was never here.
So it’s always been your spot.
Chris: Oh yeah, if you can get in. Right now it’s chill, it’s only 1:30. Soon as it’s 2, 2:30, then it gets crushed.
What is your go-to order?
Chris: Salt-and-pepper chicken wings, that’s a must. Oh, and the shrimp mayo, and duck bao buns.
What makes David’s stand out among the many late-night options around here?
Chris: Their food is great. It never disappoints. I just know if I come here the food’s gonna be good. Consistency.
So you were having a little Scotch.
Chris: Nah, we were drinking beer. And Cognac.
Philip, 38, Florida and Michelle, 29, Texas
Where are you coming from?
Michelle: There was a concert that we went to, a sold-out show for a band that was doing a reunion show that broke up. When did they break up? Like maybe 10, 15 years ago?
Philip: Yeah, like, around 2006-ish.
Michelle: Well, they didn’t really break up, they went on a hiatus. It was at Union Transfer, not too far from here at all.
Michelle: Avail—they’re from Virginia.
How do a Florida guy and a Texas gal end up in Chinatown, Philadelphia?
Philip: I’m here visiting Michelle.
Michelle: We met in Florida at a music festival a couple years ago and we started dating. He doesn’t even live in Florida anymore. He’s in Chicago and I’m in Philly now.
How long have you been in Philadelphia?
Michelle: Not too long, a couple years.
What brought you here, work?
Michelle: No, just something to do. Just moving around.
How does the Texas lifestyle compare to the Philly lifestyle?
Michelle: It’s very cold. There’s not a lot of swimming spots unless you go to the shore. Everything is very compact and crowded and small. But there is also a lot of diversity, so that’s cool.
How did you hear about David’s?
Michelle: We went to like five different places and they were all closed. So I said Chinatown is gonna be open late, maybe there’s something that’s available. So we went on Google and found this place. I literally never heard about this place before.
Are you both vegetarian?
Michelle: I am. Phil’s not, but he eats vegetarian when he’s around me [laughs].
Philip: I’m going to steal some of your General Tso’s [tofu].
Would you come back?
Michelle: Sure, if we’re hungry.
Philip: I’d check it out again.
I will say, it’s only a quarter to 2. As soon as it hits 2, it tends to get a little crazy in here.
Michelle: Oh, I can imagine. All the zombies coming in? Oh yeah.
Philip: We beat the rush. What is that, the things white people say? “We got here just in time”?
Michelle: Is that what they say?
Philip: You haven’t seen that list of things white people like to say? One of them is about getting to restaurants right before they get busy.
Michelle: [laughs] That’s really funny. I love it.
Philip: Just something I saw that was going around.