As you drive north on the 5 through the Central Valley, the interstate is dotted with fast food joints and truck stops and the occasional restaurant advertising “Chinese-American” food. In all the times I’ve done that drive, we have never stopped and I always sort of assumed that they were covering their bases, that Chinese-American food meant they served both chow mein and say, hamburgers.
My first experiences with Chinese-American food were either in a strip mall or in a cramped restaurant with yellowing walls in downtown LA. The order was always the same whether we were unpacking a brown sack of red and white take-out boxes or gathered around a big Lazy Susan for a post-funeral eat your feelings. As an only child you reach an age in life where it seems like there is a lot of Chinese food happening. I sometimes worry that the second round isn’t too many years away.
The strip mall restaurant, a Cantonese place called Wong’s, was a real, sit-down restaurant. The stories conflict about when it actually opened. An old menu claims it was in 1952, other sources, including a Flickr photo with a navy and taupe BankAmericard charge sign on the window, suggest the ‘70s. A fish tank glowed blue to greet you as you walked in the door. Naughahyde booths against brown wood paneling lined one side of the restaurant. We usually got take out; I only remember eating there once or twice, but it was the first, last and maybe only place, I’ve eaten rumaki.
Our standard order was pork chow mein with pan-fried noodles, almond chicken, char siu, sweet and sour pork and steamed rice. Sometimes there was duck in brown gravy, sometimes an order of fried rice added in, but this was the foundation of Chinese food to me. In the time before Panda Express, even this Americanized version of Chinese food had some street cred, didn’t it?
Not really. Watch Jennifer 8. Lee’s Ted Talk on Chinese Food in America. General Tso, while famous in China, is not known for his chicken.
But with or without street cred, Wong’s sweet and sour was the first thing I thought a few weeks ago ahead of the premiere of MadMen. Nothing seemed more quintessentially 60s and or as “exotic” as sweet and sour with its pineapple chunks and red and green bell peppers. The first episode taking in place in Hawaii probably had an influence, too. Having never made sweet and sour at home I went with Jaden Hair’s Sweet and Sour Chicken recipe. I wasn’t surprised the sauce included ketchup (see, even more of a MadMen connection than I realized!), after all it’s an Americanized dish, and it was spot on.
I haven’t had Wong’s in probably 15 years, and just learned it closed a couple of years ago, replaced by a crab restaurant which seems not to have changed anything but the menu. I’m kinda hoping that old Wong’s sign still lights up the street.