The new Gold Rush restaurateurs and railroad chefs collaborated in creating Chinese-American cuisine, with help from a few cooks in the gradually growing Chinatowns around the country. By all accounts, their first invention was chop suey. This flexible recipe featured meat and vegetables stir-fried into something already partly familiar to Americans as "hash" — canned ingredients like bean sprouts, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots notwithstanding. Such recipes as chow mein, egg rolls, pepper steak, lo mein, egg foo young, shrimp toast, sweet-and-sour pork, and wonton soup gradually followed, making up a roster that came to include dozens of dishes that partly catered to American tastes. Meanwhile, beleaguered sailors started New York's first Chinatown around the time of the Civil War; by 1885, according to William Grimes in Appetite City, our city could boast six Chinese restaurants.
By 1924, Chinese restaurants had become synonymous with floor shows and musical entertainment, and there were 14 in the vicinity of Times Square. But it probably wasn't until the 1930s that neighborhood Chinese restaurants started to appear around the five boroughs. They saw their heyday in the 40s and 50s, when a legion of housewives found employment outside the home and carryout Chinese became a necessity for feeding a family with two working parents. It also betokened a kind of cultural exoticism in a country that was rapidly becoming less homogenous, and one with returning GIs who had been become familiar with Asian cuisines during World War II and the Korean War.
By the 70s and 80s though, appreciation for salty, bland, and sometimes greasy Chinese-American food, now over a century old, had begun to wane. What killed it? The incursion of other types of fast food, and the appearance of other forms of Asian food — specifically, recently arrived fare from other Chinese regions, less tailored to meat-and-potato American tastes and hence more interesting to a city with diversifying culinary interests. Health concerns also killed it; in the last decades of the 20th century "low salt" and "fat-free" became watchwords. Nowadays, Chinese-American fare is an endangered species, even though some of its vegetable-heavy creations are aligned with modern notions of what's good for you. Here are 10 places that keep the old wok-flame alive.
Wo Hop — Isolated in its little corner of Chinatown on lower Mott amidst other fossilized establishments like Wing On Wo & Co. (selling "Oriental Gifts"), Wo Hop is the city's second oldest Chinese restaurant, founded in 1938. (Only Nom Wah Tea Parlor, originated in 1920 but recently hipsterized, is older.) The secret of Wo Hop's longevity? Both the purity of its Chinese-American fare, which seemingly uses no ginger, garlic, or soy sauce, and the small, subterranean nature of the real estate it occupies. Sweep down the red stairway into a small square room plastered with snapshots of its enthusiastic patrons. Communicating with each other in Cantonese, the stately waiters wear starched, light blue shopcoats and don't miss a move as they pass around massive platters of chicken chow mein, sweet-and-sour pork, subgum egg foo young (in the section dubbed "Chinese Omelettes"), and beef chow fun. Bring a crowd for maximum entertainment. 17 Mott St, (212) 962-8617
Hop Kee — Though it looks as old as Wop Hop, and indeed occupies an identical space a couple of storefronts south, Hop Kee is a comparative youngster, founded in 1968. The menu of classics is also similar, though Hop Kee bests Wo Hop in having a section devoted entirely to chop suey — the oldest recipe in the Chinese-American canon. It's one of the few restaurants in town to still offer this stir fry of bean sprouts, celery, water chestnuts, and cabbage with a choice of chicken, pork, or shrimp. The interior looks a little more modern than Wo Hop's, but attaining it requires the same march down a dodgy looking stairway. 21 Mott St., (212) 964-8365
China 1 — Like Famous Ray's was for pizza, China 1 was once the most popular name for neighborhood Chinese restaurants, and there were several with similar monikers dotted around the five boroughs. Now the Bushwick evocation is one of the few remaining, a small storefront with limited seating at three orange tables. The place doesn't look that old until you peer into the kitchen, which seems to have originated far back in the previous century. I asked the high school kid at the counter how old the restaurant was and he replied without hesitation, "three years," then backpedaled: "But many people owned it before my father." Despite (or maybe because of) the decrepitude of the premises, the food here is especially spot on as its mainly Latin patrons will attest, from the seafood-and-meat-heavy happy family to the gravy-driven pepper steak to the stylishly deconstructed chicken chow mein. A $5.50 lunch special includes pork fried rice, wonton soup, and a free soda. Pick the ethereal chicken with broccoli. 199 Irving Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 417-9527
Music Kitchen — This closet-size spot with a lyrical name exists on a commercial stretch of Southern Boulevard in the Bronx and caters to nearby government administrative buildings. Two tables grace the interior, but most business is lunchtime carryout. The classic egg rolls bulging with cabbage and shreds of roast pork are worth trying; the frying is impeccable. Chow meins tend to be vegetable-heavy and non-greasy, which is good for you, right? And the kitchen gets creative with subgum wonton, a stir fry of beef, shrimp, chicken, and pork with wontons — app and entree rolled into one! 1915 Southern Blvd, Bronx, (718) 378-5388
King Food — Years ago, when The Insiders Guide to Chinese Restaurants in New York (Grosset & Dunlap, 1969) was authored by William Clifford, the Upper West Side was a stronghold of Chinese-American restaurants. In fact there were a dozen in the vicinity of West 90th Street, and moo shu pork was one of their most popular dishes. Nowadays, not so much. King Food is one of the few great ones remaining, a couple of tables in a space with a bustling and gleaming kitchen devoted mainly to carryout. I once called the egg foo young the best in the city — three crisp patties (pick shrimp or mushroom) in a tidal wave of brown gravy, but the house special chop suey, ham fried rice, and chicken with broccoli are also worth ordering. 489 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 799-8467
Golden Forest — For regional Chinese fare from Shanghai or Fujian, or for an updated take on Cantonese food via Hong Kong, Chinatown proper is your place. But ringing Chinatown like a diamond necklace, and often only a block or two beyond its fuzzy limits, you'll find hoary restaurants that cater to mainly non-Asian patrons who seek out old-fashioned Chinese-American food. Golden Forest is a Lower East Side mainstay, with a distinctive orange awning and comfortable seating. Favorites include shrimp with lobster sauce, moo shu pork, and scallion pancakes. 353 Grand Street, (212) 505-9513
No Pork Halal Kitchen — No Pork probably dates to the days when the Black Power movement included a large constituency of Nation of Islam followers who eschewed pork, and found common cause in this regard with immigrant Muslims from the Middle East who had businesses in this downtown Brooklyn neighborhood. Nowadays, this landmark near the Barclays Center enjoys an international constituency of halal diners who enjoy wonderful renditions of ancient Chinese-American fare but minus the pork. Yes, there are thick-skinned beef dumplings almost like Central Asian momo, king crab lo mein, lemon chicken, curry chicken, and a rendition of the most famous relatively modern Chinese-American dish: General Tso's chicken, invented on the East Side of Manhattan in the 70s. 50 4th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 875-9888
Chopsticks — Until the early 80s it was a Garment Center steakhouse called Needles, but since then has been a traditional Chinese restaurant that, in keeping with modern times, has added sushi and other Japanese dishes to its repertoire. Go with the old-fashioned Chinese stuff in the deep, dark, and extensively air-conditioned interior, including fried wontons with spicy duck sauce, scrumptious beef lo mein, red-lacquered spare ribs, and sweet-and-sour pork. 130 W 36th St, (212) 868-8090
Shun Lee — This upscale restaurant chain was founded in 1965 and once included four restaurants, of which two still persist. The menu's nucleus is gussied-up versions of Chinese-American dishes like chow mein and wonton soup, but gradually the menu has grown to include regional fads as they have arrived; these days the bill of fare flaunts a prodigious Sichuan component, and the stray northern Chinese dish. Pay $25 for shrimp egg foo young and get a pair of patties fried light brown with lots of jumbo shrimp inside and a side dish — not of the usual brown gravy — but of a translucent copper-colored demi-glace. Everything is good here, if not great, and illustrates what might have happened had Chinese become our haute cuisine rather than French. The setting, with its gossamer wall dragons, bi-level seating, and circumferential black banquettes is a hoot, especially if you're used to the usual bare-bones Chinese-American carryout. 43 W 65th St, (212) 595-8895
New Good One Chinese Food — The ingratiating name is proof of its good intentions at this ancient Astoria mainstay, which offers several somewhat shabby tables for eating in. The menu encompasses all the old standards, with some newfangled ones as well, including not-bad cheese wontons that thankfully turn out to be stuffed with cream cheese rather than Velveeta, making you wonder if they might be an example of an arcane subcategory of Chinese-Jewish-American cooking. Also find dope egg rolls and luscious chow meins, which are every bit as good as they need to be, except somewhat lacking in salt, presumably a vestige of last century's low-salt era. No worries, there are plastic sleeves of thick soy sauce galore. 28-15 24th Ave, Queens, (718) 267-1688
The clock is running out on Chinese-American cuisine, though dishes are likely to pop up from time to time at such revisionist modern places as Mission Chinese, Fung Tu, and Kings County Imperial. And the cuisine provides a rich field for remakes and bistro-izations. Yet, the old places remain with us, confined to obscure corners in far-flung neighborhoods, often even blander that when the food was first directed at Americans with timid tastebuds over a century ago. Indeed, one of the chief joys of seeking out and re-familiarizing yourself with old-fashioned Chinese-American is to see what American tastes were like decades ago, to see the sorts of things your grandparents thrilled to eating, when those little white carryout cartons were enough to elevate heart rates and make glands salivate. This is heirloom eating at its finest, and it's worth trying if only as a palate cleanser that makes you appreciate today's highly spiced cuisines even more.