Tuesday, January 02, 2007

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.

13 Comments:

Blogger ChinaLawBlog said...

Do you know this Chinese-Jewish joke?

A Chinese person and a Jew were sitting around discussing their two cultures. The Chinese person mentioned that his culture was 3,000 years old. The Jew complimented Chinese culture, but then said Jewish culture was itself about 5,000 years old. "No way, said the Chinese person. . . . What did you eat for the first 2,000 years?"

9:51 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think my family used to go to different places but I recall only the New China Inn, on Flatbush Ave. at Flatlands Ave. I actually passed the site of the restaurant today on my way to a funeral, and it's a huge florist shop.

There is a very old joke, which I heard from the famous tap dancer Steve Condos, regarding Jews and Chinese food. I can't recall anything other than the punch line in which the Chinese waiter tells the diners, "Nem chicken."

Nem means "take" or "have" in Yiddish and the point of the joke was that the Chinese waiter had understood what the diners were saying about the restaurant in their language.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I remember New China Inn as well as Honam, which I think was nearby. Richard Yee, also in that area, and still in business, served more elaborate fake Chinese food.

5:36 PM  
Blogger GSS said...

Yoy Fong was also our very favorite chinese restaurant. I grew up going there. We renew our memories with a takeout menu from Joy Fong hanging on our kitchen wall. After leaving NY, whenever we visited our families we always made a trip to Joy Fong or the trip wasn't worth it.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Jodilovesbooks said...

My grandfather told us this joke when we were children:

A man is in a Chinese restaurant and asks the waiter if there are any Chinese Jews. The waiter replies...no we have pineapple jews, apple jews and tomato jews.

5:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also recall Joy Fong. My father's company waxed their floors on the weekends. So, I had the unique experience of both visiting the restaurant to eat, when it was mobbed, and also occasionally seeing it at 5 AM, quite empty. I agree that the food there was great.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone remember Young's on 50th St. and New Utrecht Ave. across from the Boro Park movie theater?

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank You for letting me know about Joy Fong in Brooklyn. I would take my family there every Sunday and like you said, the food there was great. I have not found a better menu anywhere than theirs.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Web Guy said...

I'll always miss Lums in Flushing. A permanent childhood memory.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Granny said...

It was THE BEST Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. I'm in Northern Nevada now and I sure miss East Coast Chinese restaurants.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Joseph Lee said...

Thank you to all who remember Joy Fong. I'm the remaining descendant of the man who started this restaurant. I grew up playing and living next door to the restaurant. Your comments brought back many fond memories of times past. Thank you.

Joseph Ying Lee

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the glory days of Midwood,Brooklyn,Joy-Fong and Win-Fong (Ave J/between CI Ave and East 15th Street) were mainstays. The Salick, Goodman, Penn, and Lipes families would gather and "essen" on the copious amounts of Glatt Kosher food........LOL :-) The roast pork was off the hook! As was (the long gone) tomato egg drop soup! How did Jews live without the Sunday Chinese gastronomy??:-)

10:16 PM  
Blogger Robert Hung said...

Wow. You must have had a fun childhood. Time does fly quite fast, doesn’t it? Gone were the days when you had to look very far to find restaurants that serve authentic Chinese cuisine. Now, they seem to be everywhere. There are even some restaurants that try to pass off serving authentic Chinese cuisine, but there really are good ones if you try looking harder.
Robert Hung

8:43 AM  

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