The title of this post refers to the Americanized Chinese food that was commonplace in the U.S. during the mid to late 20th century. It remains so in some regions; but not mine or in most of the major coastal metropolitan areas. I still recall the first time I had it, at a restaurant called China City on the 900 block of Race Street in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. This would have probably been in 1970 or ‘71. I even remember some of what we ordered that night..
Going out for Chinese food back then was a special occasion. Dishes like Shrimp with Lobster Sauce and Sweet & Pungent Pork were considered exotic. If you go to Philly’s Chinatown now, your options are mainly authentic, regionalized Chinese cuisine, like Szechuan, dim sum, Hong Kong-style roasted meats and hand-drawn noodles. Most people may consider that an upgrade from what was available in those olden days. But being a dyed in-the-wool traditionalist, I’m not one of them.
I can still get most of the dishes I ate back in those days, but mainly from either poor-to-mediocre takeout shops with big photos of their food above the ordering counter or at the more authentic places, where they are almost afterthoughts and generally not prepared the way they used to be. That’s less the case in some other parts of the U.S., and I’ve sought out old-fashioned, Americanized Chinese restaurants that are still around during my travels in recent years.
Although I grew up in a northern suburb of Philadelphia, my parents took me into the city often, and those trips frequently included meals in Chinatown. I still recall old stand-bys like the House of Chen, China Gate, South China, and the Magic Fan, which we ate at regularly. The Lotus and Imperial Inns were the two Chinatown restaurants that were a bit fancier in those days. We would go to one of them for special occasion dinners.
I recall celebrating Thanksgiving one year in the late 70s at the Imperial Inn. It was also the dinner stop that kicked off my bachelor party. In fact, I would say I had more meals – when combining dine-in and take-out – from there than any other restaurant over the course of my lifetime. I had an emotional attachment to it, and, although they had gone downhill in later years, it was painful for me when they finally closed in early 2019.
But all is not lost. There is still one remaining restaurant from the days of yore in Chinatown; David’ Mai Lai Wah. I only recall eating there once in my younger years, but after the Imperial Inn closed, I looked to David’s as the final connection to the Chinatown of my youth and dined there several times before COVID’s arrival.
As was commonplace in the 20th century, but not so much now, David’s starts you off with a bowl of fried noodles. I also love that they have large squeeze bottles of duck sauce and hot mustard on each table. If I am ranked in the top 10 in the world for any category, it’s probably duck sauce consumed. At some point, after seeing my beloved late Aunt Ann do it, I started mixing a bit of mustard into the duck sauce to give it a kick.
While David’s menu is probably more expansive than it was during the 70s, they still have nearly all of my favorites on there. The wonton soup still has thin slivers of roast pork. The Shrimp with Lobster Sauce still comes with minced pork. And the egg rolls remain unchanged; meaning the outer crust is thick and sturdy, unlike the flaky spring rolls that are more common nowadays, at least in Chinatown.
During one 2019 visit to David’s with my family, my father and I shared pineapple lychee duck, a classic dish we used to order at those “special occasion” Imperial Inn meals.
I’ve located a couple old-school suburban Chinese restaurants online that I haven’t yet tried. A friend and I went to one of them a few weeks ago, but we discovered upon arrival that they were only open for take-out. I decided to wait until I could eat there to get the full 1970s experience.
Both of these suburban restaurants still serve foil-wrapped-chicken, a favorite appetizer from those early years that is hard to find in this region now. They also call my favorite entree Sweet & Pungent pork or shrimp, rather than the now commonplace Sweet & Sour. It’s the same dish, but the older name seems classier. From photos I’ve seen, one of them still serves entrees on the old metal, elevated dishes that come with lids, which the server removes upon arrival at your table.
Henry’s, a Northeast Philadelphia Chinese restaurant that was old-school to the core unfortunately went out of business a few years ago. They may have been the last restaurant inside the city that served foil-wrapped-chicken. They also had a menu page that featured columns A & B, something I hadn’t seen in decades.
I did have foil-wrapped-chicken at Me Lyng in the Pittsburgh area during a 2019 visit that I wrote about in a previous post. We also enjoyed a PuPu platter there. That is an assortment of appetizers served with a mini hibachi in the center for heating up your beef-on-a-stick or spare ribs. I could use a place like Me Lyng in my area.
Another classic place my wife and I stopped at during that same vacation was Ding Ho, the oldest continuously-operating Chinese Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. An entree we ordered there arrived in one of the above-mentioned metal serving dishes that were ubiquitous in the Chinatown restaurants my family ate at in the days of yore.
I do enjoy good dim sum and even love Hong Kong-style roast pork and duck. But there is something about the old-school dishes and restaurants of the 70s and 80s that has a special appeal for me. I consider it to be the ultimate comfort food.
I’ll continue to seek out those places on the road and hope to get to the suburban restaurants I mentioned above in the coming months. Whenever I eat at such a place, you can be sure you’ll read about it here.