I had a nice chat with a UCLA history professor today, Valerie Matsumoto. I’d emailed her about their grad program, and she replied and told me I could call her, so I did. She talked to me for forty-five minutes. Very kind of her. She told me a lot of useful stuff, but perhaps the most immediately fascinating is this: a Berkeley visual artist, Indigo Som, is working on a project about Chinese restaurants in America. She’s collecting takeout menus, and she details the progress of the project on her website. I think the project sounds fabulous. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with. Apparently lots of people have mailed her menus in response–why didn’t I just ask for old menus for my thesis and see if anybody produced anything? ;b Because no one has any menus older than 1915, probably. ;b
Anyway she’s got a survey on her website and I’m filling it out. My answers are turning out rather long. I like them, though, so I’m posting them here for my reference.
Survey: What is your earliest memory of a Chinese restaurant? When was it and how old were you? (This can be approximate.)
My maternal grandfather, who is Cantonese, used to live in Sacramento, so whenever my family and I visited him, we used to get dim sum at a place called King’s. It might be Kings without the apostrophe, I’m not sure. We stopped going there when I was younger than six, and my parents can’t remember why. I remember they had a bar with tall swivelly stools, it was kind of dark inside, and they had silver metal teapots. There was a kindly waiter whose face I liked. I remember nothing that I ate there except one item made of tofu skins (I don’t know what they’re really called?) wrapped around meat. At some point not long after I stopped eating any form of tofu. For some reason I just find the concept of tofu very unappealing. That’s how I know I was definitely younger than six, possibly younger than four, when we stopped going–the period in my life when I actually ate tofu was very, very short.
The funny thing about King’s is that it’s actually still around, which we never expected. A couple of years ago my sister started college in Davis, so my parents drove around Sacramento one day looking for a place to eat, and rediscovered King’s. It’s actually got a complete name, but I can never remember it. Something funny like “Kings American Chinese Hot Food.” I went back there, with my parents and best friend, around January of this year, and it was almost exactly as I remembered it. The same bar, same stools (less tall-seeming now that I am myself taller), same metal teapots, and, unbelievably, the same waiter. I still like his face, and he’s a very nice, personable guy. He’s extra friendly to kids, which makes me think that’s why I recalled him so vividly from my childhood. He’s not _too_ aged, either, which makes me think he must have been rather young when I first encountered him. Some of the waitresses are the same, too, and one of them recognized my parents when they found the restaurant again two years ago.
It’s an interesting time-warp experience to go back to King’s to eat. I think about how astonishingly unchanged it is, and I wonder what it is about this place, that it has lasted so long. I tend to think my favorite waiter’s manner has a lot to do with it. He makes everyone feel welcome, Asian or not, and he speaks perfectly fluent English. The place has a decidedly more American feel than most other Chinese restaurants I’ve been to, and there’s hardly any of the Chinese or faux-Chinese kitsch usually present. In fact I think there might be some American kitsch, like old Coca-Cola signs.
Since I have such fond memories of the place, I would like to go back to it whenever I can. Thankfully, I like their food. It’s what we think old-school Chinese American food should be: big portions, not too expensive, hot and tasty. I’ve only been back there twice, as I’m not too often in Davis or Sacramento around dim sum hours. But it’s on my permanent list of eating places I like. I figure if it’s been around this long (I’m twenty-one now), it’ll be around forever, or at least as close to forever as I need for it to be.
What did you most recently eat in (or from) a Chinese restaurant?
The last time I went to one was with my parents. We were coming back from furniture shopping and just wanted to stop someplace to get something quick, but none of us was actually hungry, so what we ordered wasn’t typical. We ended up at the “Xiao Chi” adjunct to Joy Luck Place in Cupertino. I don’t know what it’s actually called. We ordered a shrimp wonton soup, big pea sprouts (as opposed to small pea sprouts. It was their seasonal vegetable), a beef and noodle dish, and a wonderful dish they call Portuguese Rice. It’s a round glass dish of shrimp, scallops, and yellow onion over rice, topped with a curry sauce that has eggs stirred into it (a la egg-drop soup). I think it may also have coconut milk in it. The whole thing is baked and smells fabulous when brought to the table, and when you stir it to mix the rice and the sauce, steam rises up.
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king’s dim sum is very authentic Cantonese. Unlike the fancy Hong Kong style. Definitely “old school”. I wonder how long they have been there? We have known them since 1987(run by the same family)
Yes. I like them. 😀