The mein course
Because my family came from New York City, every year we went there three or four times.
Frankly, being 100 percent country, I never cared much for the place. As its denizens brag, everything there is larger than life: the buildings, the crowds, the noise, the lights. To me, however, it was just too much.
Not saying I didn’t like anything, but mostly, it was the touristy things: the view from atop the Empire State Building, sailing over the bounding main on the Staten Island Ferry, the Great White Way at night. My favorite, however, was Chinese food.
Keep in mind, this was in the 1950’s, in the Stone Age of America’s ethnic dining. Today, go to any hick town and you’ll find one Chinese restaurant, if not more. But back then? Forget it.
Ah, but The City That Never Sleeps had it all: muggers, junkies, filth, squalor, corruption and – ta da! – Chinese restaurants.
Actually, while there were dozens if not hundreds of Chinese restaurants in Gotham, we ate at only two of them. One, a block from our hotel, was called The Good Earth (after the Pearl Buck novel, I assume). As far as Chinese restaurants go, it was a classy joint, with nice rugs and booths and matching cups and plates (red on white, circled by the requisite pagodas, junks, fields and mountains, with a peasant or two thrown in for good measure). Prices were reasonable, portions were huge, and the tea flowed like the Yangtze in springtime.
Though the menu was extensive, my tastes were narrow. In fact, if they’d been any narrower, they wouldn’t have existed: I always ordered the same thing chicken chow mein.
The food was delicious, but what I remember best about it was its aftereffects. Once we were back at the hotel, I was light-headed, had tingling in my hands and arms, and my chest felt like it’d just come from Adirondack Tire, inflated to about 300 psi.
At the time, we had no idea what caused it. My mother thought it was from drinking too much tea. Ah, the innocent days of my halcyon youth! Now of course we know it was due to MSG, something Chinese restaurants today studiously avoid and copiously advertise. Back then, though, they buried their food under it.
The Port Arthur
The Good Earth was our base of operations when it was just my mother, brother and me going out, but when we ate Chinese food with my Uncle Irving, it was at the Port Arthur.
To a kid from the sticks, New York’s Chinatown was a trip, of and by itself. Aside from the narrow streets aswarm with what looked like millions of Chinese people, there were stores with signs I couldn’t read, wares I’d never seen, aromas I’d never smelled, and sounds I’d never heard. And smack-dab in the middle of all that was the Port Arthur. And when I say “smack dab in the middle,” that’s exactly what I mean, since it was on Mott Street, which is the heart of Chinatown.
The restaurant itself was a sight to behold. It was three stories high and had an ornate front that looked like a pagoda designed by an architect on acid. And the trip continued inside. The restaurant itself was on the second and third floors (the ground floor being a Chinese market), but only the second floor was open to tourists. The third floor was for private Chinese parties, which given the otherworld mysteriousness of Chinatown itself, had me thinking it was full of warlords, Tong gangsters, white slavers and the rest.
But, oh, the second-floor restaurant. The entire room was chock full of Things Asian O’erdone-to-the-Max. The tables and chairs were carved and inlaid so complexly it was impossible to maintain focus on one spot for any length of time. The walls were covered with scrolls up the waz, and lanterns galore hung from the ceiling. It was something out of the Forbidden City – if the Forbidden City had been in Las Vegas, not Beijing. It was also the perfect restaurant for my Uncle Irving.
He was a big-hearted guy with a childlike sense of delight. He loved animals, toy stores, amusement parks and flashy outfits (though rarely matching). He took us to Coney Island, and I remember him telling us Nathan’s hot dogs were such high quality we could eat as many as we wanted and we’d never get sick on the rides, (I learned fast and first-hand how wrong he was on that one.)
Only recently I realized he earned his gleefulness the hard way. He’d been orphaned as a child, came of age in the Depression and worked in the CCC. So probably his first chance at childhood was as an adult. That said, he and the Port Arthur were a perfect match.
The PA’s menu was much bigger than The Good Earth’s. As a matter of fact, it was so huge it was mind-boggling. Of course that didn’t bother me, since every time I ate there I ordered the same thing. Not surprisingly, it was chicken chow mein.
Today, almost 60 years later, I still love Chinese food and eat it pretty often. Also, whenever I travel, my first choice of restaurant is a Chinese one.
And now the $64 question: Do I still order only chicken chow mein?
No, since I quit eating meat decades ago.
Now I order only vegetable chow mein.