Chinese Food, the Early Years
This isn’t going to be a piece about the early history of food in China. No, I’m writing about a subject of much more universal interest−my own early Chinese restaurant experiences, in Brooklyn, in the 1960s.
Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, Chinese food is a birthright, and I was weaned on chicken chow mein, the quintessential Chinese-American dish of my youth. Of course, chow mein as it was served in the Americanized Cantonese restaurants of yore bore little relation to true chow mein, freshly pan-fried wheat noodles. Somewhere along the line, I guess in the U.S., the dry, crispy noodle, or chow mein noodle (which I guess translates as “fried noodle noodle”) was invented, and this replaced freshly fried noodles in chow mein. So the chow mein of my youth was basically chicken, or some other meat, with vegetables (mostly celery, if I remember correctly), in a mucus-like sauce that made prodigious use of cornstarch, with dry, crispy noodles thrown on top.
Most of my early Chinese restaurant experiences took place at two restaurants in Midwood. One of them was New Toy Sun, which was across the street from my grammar school, P.S. 217. When I was a kid I loved the idea of a restaurant named after a toy sun. However, it was really an Americanization of Toisan (Taishan in Pinyin), an area of Guangdong province that many early Chinese immigrants came from. It was your basic “one from column A, one from column B” type of place. Spare ribs, egg rolls and fried rice usually figured in a meal. On a splurge we might get shrimp with lobster sauce, which was shrimp in a mucus and egg sauce. Occasionally somebody would go wild and order something “exotic,” like wor shew opp (fried pressed duck). This was the kind of Chinese food that had been served in North America for over fifty years, almost exclusively. Restaurants of this ilk were sometimes referred to as “chop suey joints,” after that other ubiquitous Chinese-American dish that, except for the absence of noodles, was pretty similar to chow mein. These restaurants always had a section called “American Dishes,” usually at the lower right-hand corner of the menu, including things like sandwiches, steak and roast chicken. I never saw anybody order from that section.
The restaurant we mostly patronized was Joy Fong, on Avenue J, a now-defunct place that retains an almost holy status in the memories of Brooklyn Jews of a certain age. I wouldn’t be surprised if people visit the site of the former restaurant and wail against the wall. All issues of authenticity aside, I too retain some fond Joy Fong memories. Their spare ribs were meaty and delicious, among the best Chinese-style ribs I’ve had to this day. The place was extremely popular, and I believe Sunday was the biggest family night out, when you could go deaf from the clatter of competing yentas.
Of course, there was also the occasional trip to Chinatown. Back in the ’60s little Cantonese rice shops, like Hong Fat, Lin’s Garden and Wo Hop dominated the Chinatown landscape. Their fare was more authentically Chinese, but it much of it was heavy and greasy, quite different from the more upscale Hong Kong seafood places that would arrive somewhat later. It was at restaurants like this that I became familiar with chow fun, which was never available at the Chinese-American neighborhood joints.
Things changed drastically in the early-70s, when regional Chinese cuisines other than Cantonese arrived in New York (and California), eventually transforming the menus at Chinese restaurants all over America.
This is the first installment in a three-part series, a personal history of Chinese food in New York from the '60s through the '80s.