All of my life, we’ve eaten a lot of Chinese food. When my brother and I were very young, our family didn’t eat out much. One of the few excursions we could afford on a semi-regular basis was dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I think there were two reasons for this. For starters, Chinese food was proportionally cheaper than it is now. And also we would only order three dishes–one for my mother, one for my father, and one for both my brother and me (that one was usually Beef with Oyster Sauce).
Later, it turned out that we just liked Chinese food, although the restaurant name wasn’t supposed to be that all-encompassing. In my mother’s opinion, a restaurant that didn’t specify its region wasn’t going to be any good. It wasn’t enough to advertise “Chinese food,” it had to specify Szechwan, Hunan, Cantonese, etc. We liked them all, so a specific region wasn’t the deciding factor. She felt that if the restaurant didn’t have a predominant regional identification, the owners and/or cooks didn’t know enough about the food they were making. Interestingly, many of our favorite restaurants did not meet this standard.
In Rockville, Maryland, the Far East Restaurant was our establishment of choice. Although the naming principle doesn’t seem to have held here, we always noticed that the Chinese patrons got porcelain teapots, while the European-descended patrons got plain metal teapots. These days that policy has changed, and there is equality of teapots at the Far East.
We moved to San Antonio, where we found the Wah Kee Seafood Restaurant. After several years in San Antonio, a multiplex movie theater opened near us, and the Wah Kee opened up in the adjacent shopping center. Another favorite was the Chinatown Cafe, which we liked so much that in 2004 J and I had our wedding rehearsal dinner there.
I found good Chinese food right away when I moved to New Jersey (good Mexican food proved more elusive). Unfortunately, several months later the restaurant burned to the ground. While that was definitely a loss, I can recommend Lotus Cafe in Hackensack and Taipei Noodle House in Teaneck.
There is a surprising lack of good Chinese food on the Westside of Los Angeles. About the best you can do is Hop Li. It’s pretty good, but not what it could be. No doubt this is largely because the center of Chinese restaurants in the area is in the San Gabriel Valley, but it’s still surprising that so densely populated an area can’t do better. When my grandparents lived in Monterey Park, my favorite restaurant was the Dragon Regency, where one night the chef made me a special dish of lemon cod fillets. I never ordered anything else, and eventually they put it on the menu. My grandparents and I were such loyal patrons that not only did they make me special dishes, they also gave me impromptu birthday celebrations, complete with bean cakes and gifts. Prior to our wedding, J and I went to Engaged Encounter (we will never get that weekend back), and I suggested that we have dinner at the Dragon Regency on our way to the seminary. I was devastated to find that the restaurant had closed, and I have yet to find anyone who can make that perfect lemon cod. Not even the excellent NBC Seafood, where we had dinner with two of J’s friends last year, can manage that particular dish.
So Chinese food has always played an important role in my family’s meals, although these days I haven’t got the slightest interest in Beef with Oyster Sauce. Chinese food was my brother’s comfort food when he was home sick from school, and I love it so much that one year I gave it up for Lent. And it’s one of the ways that my brother and I choose to honor my mother on her birthday. The two of them both loved Peking Duck, so that’s one of the dishes he’s sure to order. I don’t order any particular dish–but aside from the Dragon Regency’s lemon cod, I’ve never had one.
Tonight J and I had dinner at Yang Chow, in L.A.’s Chinatown. We found it a couple of years ago with my brother and his girlfriend (now his wife), and it seemed like the right place to celebrate my mother’s birthday this year. That was a good choice, as was the Beef with Black Bean Sauce that the chef made on request (oddly, the menu does include black bean sauce–but only on squid).
I just wish she’d been there to join us.