Yao Ming's parents opened the 100-table Yao Restaurant & Bar in a west Houston strip mall late last month. When the Rockets' All-Star treated his backup Dikembe Mutombo and assistant coach and former Knicks big man Patrick Ewing to lunch, SI's Gene Menez was there.
The three enter and are led to Yao's VIP room, which is customized for tall people. (Yao's mother, Fang Feng Di, is 6'3"; his father, Yao Zhi Yuan, is 6'7".) The doorway is nine feet high, the table and chairs are supersized, and large plush recliners sit opposite a 42-inch flat-screen TV.
EWING: What kind of food do they serve here?
EWING: I know Chinese. But what kind of Chinese? Snake? 'Cuz I don't eat snake.
YAO: No snake. In China, yes, but you're not in China.
EWING: Well, I don't eat pork, duck or chicken either. Only shrimp and fish [and beef].
MUTOMBO: I eat anything.
EWING: [Browsing through the black leather-bound menu] What's the speciality here?
YAO: Uh.... [Looks at menu and shrugs.]
Ewing, Mutombo and Yao order coconut curry prawn, General Tso's chicken, fried rice with shrimp, Mongolian beef, garlic basil prawn, Szechuan prawn and white rice.
MUTOMBO: [Sipping a virgin strawberry daiquiri] I like your restaurant, Yao. It's made for 7-footers and guys like Patrick Ewing, who is really 6'9". [Ewing has always been listed as 7 feet.]
EWING: Hey, I may be 6'9", but I'm a bad 6'9". And what about you? When I first met you, you told me you were from Zaire.
MUTOMBO: No, Congo. [Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997.]
EWING: How many languages do you speak, seven?
MUTOMBO: I speak Ebonics now, so eight. Yao, do you speak Ebonics? [Yao shrugs.]
Mutombo's cellphone rings. The ring tone is 50 Cent's In Da Club. He answers and starts speaking one of his eight languages--not English.
EWING: Man, every time I go over to Dikembe's, he's on the phone. [Ewing picks up his cellphone and starts mocking Mutombo.] 'Doobleedoo doobloodoo doobleedoo....' I'm like, 'What the hell is he saying?'
The food comes, and the three dig in.
MUTOMBO: That's what I'm talking about. Yao, next week I'm bringing my wife and kids, and we're going to eat like this.
YAO: How many will you be?
MUTOMBO: Me, my wife, my kids, my cousins ... about 10.
YAO: Just let me know.
EWING: [To Mutombo] Can you pass me that beef?
MUTOMBO: Sure. [Before passing it, Mutombo takes his own spoon and scoops four pieces onto his plate.]
EWING: Man, I don't want that now. You put your spoon in the plate. [Ewing nonetheless takes the plate from Mutombo.] Jeez, man.
MUTOMBO: Oh, come on. I didn't even touch the beef on your side of the plate. You can eat that. [Ewing reluctantly scoops three pieces onto his plate. He doesn't say a word.]
MUTOMBO: How long have we known each other, 18 years? I've been dealing with this same crap for 18 years.
EWING: Let's see if the curry shrimp tastes like Jamaican curry shrimp.
MUTOMBO: Yao, you know there's a lot of Chinese in Jamaica [where Ewing was born].
YAO: You sure they were not Vietnamese or Japanese or Korean?
MUTOMBO: Of course.
EWING: You may have cousins down there, Yao. You may have family in my country!
MUTOMBO: All the food's good. The chicken is the bomb. The coconut prawns, too. The Mongolian beef is my favorite. Tell your mommy everything is good. [Mutombo flashes two thumbs-up.]
MUTOMBO: [To Ewing] I'm sorry you don't eat chicken. I feel very sorry for you.
EWING: [His mouth full of shrimp] Don't feel sorry for me. The shrimp is very good.
Yao leaves the table and sits in a recliner.
EWING: You finished already?
YAO: Yeah, I can eat this every day if I want. At home. Here.
EWING: [Rubbing belly] I gotta go work out tonight. I'm full. You got a treadmill for me?
YAO: Leave your car keys here and run home. I'll give you the keys tomorrow.
MUTOMBO: I'm so full too. Somebody may have to drive me home.
YAO: Keep eating. You can stay here all night.
The waiter enters and asks if they need anything.
EWING: I need a take-out menu.
MUTOMBO: Look at this motherf-----. [Laughter]
EWING: I'm not going to order anything now, but one night, if I'm hungry, I'll call and order and say, 'Put it on Yao's bill.'
YAO: All right. Of course.
EWING: How much is the bill?
YAO: I got it.
EWING: You got it?
YAO: Yeah. [He slides a $100 bill under a tea cup on the table as a tip.]
MUTOMBO: You're a great man, Yao. When you come to Africa, I'm going to take you to a great African restaurant.
"It's not like ... the cellphone is going off every two minutes. But it goes off enough."
--Jarrett Jack, Georgia tech guard,
Everybody Knows Jack, page 36
OlivierCOLORPHOTONEWSPHOTO (FRONT OF RESTAURANT)THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Rick OlivierTALL ORDERS Before and after stuffing themselves in Yao's VIP room, shrimp-loving Ewing (right) and big-sipping Mutombo (upper left) reclined with their host.COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER (JACK)