While he waited in line at Al’s Drive-In, 80 Madison St. in Maywood, on Thursday afternoon, Arian Wade couldn’t help but notice the difference.
“It’s not the same,” Wade lamented to another customer who was waiting in line.
As soon as he walked to the window to order, Darrell Stevens asked about the man whom Wade called “the face of this window.”
“How’s Chuck? Where’s Chuck at?” Stevens asked the worker taking his order.
Art Boonma, the restaurant’s longtime general manager, said he’s fielded the question so much that he had to tape a poster to the takeout window, notifying the public about Chuck’s memorial.
Chokchai “Chuck” Suwannasri, 63, died on May 4 from cancer. For decades, his gregarious, sincere personality and warmth was what made Al’s so special for so many community members, particularly the students of Proviso East High School, located right across the street.
Wade, who graduated from East in 1989, spoke about Suwannasri as if he were a relative or a close neighbor.
“Chuck would already know your order,” Wade said. “You didn’t even have to say nothing. He’d say things like, ‘Where’s your father at?’ He had a good memory.”
Stevens, who graduated in 1983, echoed the sentiment.
“He was a great guy, man,” Stevens said. “Fun, entertaining — didn’t ever forget your name.”
Born in Thailand in 1958, Suwannasri moved to the United States at the age of 14.
“We stayed in Baltimore before we moved to Chicago in 1977,” said Boonma, whose sister, Sue Rapanavanich, owns Al’s, which her family founded in 1979, replacing a restaurant by the same name. Boonma said Suwannasri is his nephew-in-law.
While he reminisced, Boonma pulled out his cellphone to show a 2017 episode of “Chicago’s Best.” The TV show, which profiles eateries across the Chicago area, had featured Al’s in their episode, highlighting the region’s best Chinese food.
Another video — which shows Suwannasri reciting “The Message,” the 1982 rap song by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five — has been making the rounds again on social media.
Randall McFarland, co-founder of the nonprofit and Facebook group Best of Proviso Township, wrote on Facebook that Suwannasri “always respectfully embraced the culture and communities that [Al’s Drive-In] served.”
The group’s other co-founder, Rajeska Jackson, still recalled what for many Proviso East students was something of a ritual. Jackson wrote on Facebook that she went to Al’s “almost before every game.”
Many customers recalled their favorite dishes — from the shrimp fried rice to the super tacos. And who can forget the mild sauce and fries?
But perhaps even more important than the food was Suwannasri’s unique way of greeting customers, many longtime Al’s patrons recalled on Facebook.
“Every time I walked in, no matter how long I’ve been away, you always greeted me the same,” wrote Damien T. Harvey on Facebook. “‘Wassup Mr. Harbry … You back in town? Let me get yo shake started my good sir …”
Harvey added that a “void has been created because no one … ABSOLUTELY NO ONE … made a Strawberry Shake for me the way you did.”
On Saturday, about 100 people — many of them wearing Al’s serving hats like the ones Chuck donned — gathered in the parking lot of Al’s for an impromptu memorial service for Chuck that was planned by a group of East alums, including McFarland, who graduated in 1986.
“One thing I liked about Chuck is he remembered my name,” said Chris Brown. “I think he remembered all of you all’s names. For whatever reason it was, he had that ability to remember names. He was a community favorite. He was a guy who gave you a laugh and a good time.”
“The thing with grief comes hope,” said Suwannasri’s niece, Heidi Ratanavanich, 40. “Seeing this, seeing all of the people Chuck touched reflected here is truly incredible. He’s an institution and touched so many people’s lives in the simple way of just serving food.”
Al’s owners planned another memorial service on Tuesday. Ratanavanich said that funeral services for Suawannasri will be private.