This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Krieger]
There's been a lot of talk in food and drink circles this year about the tiki revival. I wonder if any of it has penetrated the thick walls of King Yum, where large tiki masks have stared with glowing eyes, and irony-free umbrella have graced "exotic" drinks for 57 years. If it has, it hasn't caused the Fresh Meadows institution to change a single thing about the way they do business. The old, thin Chinese waiters wear their red jackets. The unreconstructed Cantonese-American dishes come to the table in metal serving dishes, the kind with a silver lid over them—something I haven't seen since the East Village's Jade Mountain closed years back. And you get a fortune cookie at the end.
"I grew up with this food," said an aging Jewish man to his companion at a nearby booth, one of the few occupied tables on a recent night. "Every Sunday we had Chinese food. If someone came here on a Saturday, you knew they were a goy." The clientele is still largely Jewish—a menorah was ready to go in the cloak room, but there was not a Christmas decoration in sight—and largely old. Regulars are the children, and sometimes the children of the children, of the people who made King Yum their home away from home during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. "I remember your first wife," said one deep-voiced woman to her graying gentleman friend. "I remember her pony tail. I can still see her walking down the sidewalk, her pony tail swaying back and forth."
The neighborhood along Union Turnpike is also still largely Jewish, and the number of kosher Chinese joints renders it a bit of a picture postcard of a now-vanished cultural New York moment. King Yum food isn't kosher. Neither is it "Polynesian"—whatever that designation ever meant. And, unfortunately, it ain't very good either. The gloppy, soupy, salty dishes of Egg Foo Young, Moo Goo Gai pan and pu pu platters many be comfort food to many, but are fairly indigestible to more discerning palates. Ditto the tiki drinks, which are lovingly presented is ornate glassware, but made with base well spirits and adorned with fruit garnishes so stale they smell vaguely of dishwashing liquid. Still, that's just me. The guy next booth over commented, "I don't want to go to Four Seasons. I don't like the food there," as he shoveled in his share of MSG.
Much of King Yum's appeal for many years—apart from the waterfall, the seashell-encrusted light fixtures, the wonderful, thatch-roofed bar, and other priceless decor accents—was Jimmy Eng, who founded the restaurant and cheerfully presided over it until 2008, when he died at 87. There are some priceless black-and-white photos of him, back in the 1960s, playing host to happy groups of revelers. Today, his son has assumed the mantle. So, presumably, King Yum will go on.
That would be good news to the rangy old man who came in from the cold and seemed to barter with his waiter as to how much of a chosen entree he wanted and was willing to pay for. And the beefy man at the bar, who happily chatted with the young, black-haired, white-jacketed, handsome bartender, who would not have looked out of place at Don the Beachcomber's. On the bar television, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" suddenly came on ABC. A folksy animated snowman spoke with the voice of Burl Ives. I thought how, when the holiday classic first premiered in 1964, King Yum was already eleven years old. Already a fixture. The bartender picked up the remote. He changed the channel.
—Brooks of Sheffield