"I should have drank more and eaten less" was Donna's verdict after our dinner at King Yum, on Union Turnpike in Queens, one of New York's last bastions of classic old-school Chinese-American food. Considering how bad the food was, I decided that would make a good motto for the restaurant. But then it's not for the quality of the food that one visits King Yum. It's for a trip in the wayback machine to 1953, the year King Yum opened.
But before we travel back 56 years, let me rewind just a bit. King Yum had been on my radar since I developed a nostalgic interest in the Chinese food of my youth
a couple of years ago. I made it to one of the other survivors, Riverdale's Golden Gate
, and actually quite enjoyed the spare ribs and butterfly shrimp. Several people who had been to King Yum had warned me that the food wasn't very good, but it did pretty much maintain its fifties decor, was still run by its founder, James K. Eng, who holds court nightly, and they still serve a full list of "exotic" drinks like the mai tai, the zombie, the mona loa, and the tabu for two. And, of course, flaming pu-pu platters, de rigeur with mai tais and zombies.
It was six months after my birthday and Donna still hadn't taken me out to celebrate. Reciprocal birthday dinners are a tradition I try to maintain with my close friends. So I called in my chit. Since Donna and her husband Masa have a car, a rare commodity among my New York friends, and since King Yum isn't near a subway stop, I requested we hold my belated birthday celebration there.
With its bamboo-accented faux-Polynesian interior, King Yum has more of a tiki lounge atmosphere than any of the Chinese restaurants I frequented as a kid, but the menu is pure old-school Cantonese-American, including many dishes I hadn't thought about in years. We got there on a Wednesday night at 7PM, and the place was hopping. Well, not quite hopping, since I suspect a large percentage of the customers now use walkers. The large dining room was a sea of white hair. I think many of the customers were old when the place opened in 1953. Not everybody was ancient, but the three of us were certainly in the youth brigade. I found that rather refreshing.
One of the reasons it was so busy was that Wednesday is one of their two karaoke nights. The incidental "entertainment" added to the kitsch experience. Shortly after we were seated the woman who manages the karaoke came over to our table. "Is anybody celebrating a special event?" she asked. "A birthday? An anniversary?"
"No!" I screamed out before anybody had a chance to say otherwise. I wasn't lying, after all. We may have been celebrating my birthday, but my birthday is in March. Anyway, we had all agreed we had no desire to participate in karaoke. Besides, I only perform my own songs
, none of which have, as far as I know, made it into the karaoke repertoire.
We ordered our drinks. I chose a zombie and Donna a pina colada. Masa doesn't drink. I was disappointed that my drink didn't come in a carved tiki mug, but at least it had an umbrella.
We perused the dinner menu. On the specials list was an item called "mish mosh." Donna had to know what it was, and I'm glad she did. The waiter explained: "It's pan fried noodles topped with shrimp, chicken and pork."
"Oh," I said, "subgum chow mein."
"Yes. Chinese dish, Jewish name." As he said this he made a sweeping hand gesture surveying the alter kakers in the crowd. We didn't order mish mosh. In the topsy-turvy bizzarro world of inauthentic Chinese food, a relatively authentic pan fried noodle dish would be too inauthentic. In the wayback machine Chinese restaurant world there are no pan fried noodles. In this parallel universe, chow mein is a plate of meat and vegetables in a mucilaginous sauce topped with dry, crispy noodles.
We started with individual bowls of wonton soup, of course. The broth tasted as if it had been ladled directly out of a lake in Utah, it was that salty. Everything else was overly salty too.
After we finished our soup, the pu-pu platter arrived.
The contents of a pu-pu platter can vary from place to place. This one consisted of spare ribs, shrimp toast, foil wrapped chicken, beef skewers, and fantail shrimp. No egg rolls. C'est la vie. The ribs were scrawny and salty. The beef sticks were leathery and salty. The foil wrapped chicken was really salty. I don't usually like deep fried things, so I passed on the shrimp toast and the fantail shrimp, the latter of which toted a blimp's worth of batter.
Then our two main courses arrived. I got goose bumps when I saw those metal serving dishes and lids.
For some reason I've had an ongoing Jones for butterfly shrimp for the longest time (and sometimes the Jones lasts for longer than four hours). I wrote about the version at Golden Gate
, which was a kind of butterfly shrimp-omelet hybrid. King Yum's was more like I remembered: individual shrimp split lengthwise, with bacon pasted on with just a touch of egg, served in a light sweet-sour sauce with onions. It was the best, or at least the least bad, dish of the evening, but it couldn't compare with Golden Gate's, which was actually good. King Yum's was, yes, too salty.
When I saw the wor shew opp (braised pressed duck) I was horrified. What have I done? I wondered. The thick brown gravy looked like the La Brea Tar Pits studded with canned mushrooms. It was, believe it or not, incredibly salty. I can't believe I ate as much of it as I did. I'm thinking the mai tai made me do it. I had finished my zombie by the time the main courses arrived and ordered a mai tai. I had never before had either drink. I'm pretty sure the mai tai was just a zombie (rum and fruit juice) with Angostura Bitters added.
It was a lousy meal, no doubt about it, but I'm glad I went. Think of King Yum as a living museum of sorts. Go, have a zombie or a mai tai, soak up the atmosphere, order some food, not too much, have a few more drinks, be thankful that a place like this still exists, and be even more thankful that very few places like this still exist.
181-08 Union Turnpike