Growing up, all roads led to Chinatown.
My family went into “the city” a lot. That is what Manhattan is called, even if you lived in one of New York City’s outer boroughs, as we did. We could be uptown at the Museum of Natural History, at Madison Square Garden catching the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus or the Ice Capades, or schmoozing on the Lower East Side. But when we got hungry, we ended our day in the city in Chinatown.
And most of the time, we ate at the same restaurant: The Ko Shing Rice Shoppe.
The Ko Shing Rice Shoppe was located right across the street from the brand-new Confucius Tower apartment buildings. Its dining room was sparsely decorated with wood panels and mirrored walls and plain tables and chairs. It was not a tourist spot so it did not have the usual Chinese kitsch of gongs, pagoda-sloped ceilings or dragon tapestries on the walls.
What it had was great food.
My grandfather knew the owner from many years before. He worked nights at the New York Daily News for over 50 years. His lunch break was around 3:00 a.m. Over the years, he became a regular at one of these all-night Chinese kitchens that operated out of a midtown basement. There, he met Lee. One day, or night, Lee said he was opening up his own restaurant in Chinatown and wanted my grandfather’s whole family to be there for the celebration.
That is where the above picture is from. I was about nine, so my brother was only five. We were the only non-Asian family there among the celebrants, and we were treated to plate after plate of chicken & cashews, crab, bowls of winter melon soup and other delicacies.
From that age on, until my 20′s that was the restaurant of my family’s choice, above Italian food, above Kosher Deli, it was Chinese food that was our exotic cuisine of preference. Chinese food is as inextricably linked to my identity as Matzah Ball soup and gifelte fish.
So, on day outings to the city, we would get there at an odd hour: 3:30 or 4 o clock. The restaurant would be all but empty except for our family: my parents and my brother, my grandparents, and friends who would meet us there, locally and from out-of-town.
In the back at a huge round table, the cook staff would be chopping mountains of Bok Choy and broccoli in advance of the evening rush. My grandfather would take us into the kitchen to say hi to Lee and the chefs. Then we would order, my grandfather would order for the whole family not bothering to even look at the menu. He would just ask Lee to make us a dish of this and a plate of that, always with extra ginger and garlic at my grandmother’s request.
If the waiters had time, they would patiently instruct my brother and I how to use chopsticks. We would have to eventually abandon our practice and resign to use our forks when my mom and grandmother said we were taking too long in our attempts to pick up every individual grain of rice.
After dinner, it was still early in the evening. No matter the weather, summer or winter, we would walk through the narrow streets of the heart of Chinatown. And before vegetarianism or veganism was hip, my grandmother was the first person to introduce me to tofu. After dinner, she would have to make a stop at the Tofu factory to bring some home.
The Ko Shing Rice Shoppe was a place where we held our family birthday parties. My mom’s 40th. My grandfather’s 65th. I even found myself there with my grandfather after the funeral of my paternal grandmother, with whom I did not have a relationship.
But on the ride home, seeing that I was a bit glum, my grandpa found our way somehow from the funeral home in Westchester to the Ko Shing Rice Shoppe. We talked over the events of the day over steaming cups of tea and a dish of beef lo mein.
I don’t know if the Ko Shing Rice Shoppe still exists. I went back to Chinatown on a recent visit but didn’t have the heart to walk the street where it was, in case it was boarded up or another restaurant had taken its place.
In young adulthood, visits to another Chinatown – this time in San Francisco – were a highlight of my newlywed life when my husband and I lived in Berkeley, Calif. We ate at San Francisco’s famous house of NanKing, where lines would snake around the corner during the Chinese New Year to sit in a crammed dining room and feast on sizzling plates of vegetables drenched in the most incredible hoisin sauce I have ever tasted. In the evening, we squeezed into the crowds for a view of the parade, complete with Chinese Dragon dances, drumming bands, and marshall arts demonstrations.
Now I live in a town without a Chinatown. But there are still some good family owned Chinese restaurants in Rochester, like Golden Dynasty and Chen’s. My diet has changed from consuming everything to only sticking to vegetarian items. But still, on Chinese New years, my children delight in the traditions of getting a dollar in an envelope and opening up fortunes.
Have a great New Year!