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researching Chinese restaurant menus from 1960's LA

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  • Claire Raffel Oct 28, 2005 05:30 PM
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Dear Chowhounds,

I am a graduate student at UCLA writing a paper on a historic Chinese menu from the LA Public Library's menu collection. The menu is from 1965, from New Moon restaurant on San Pedro. I am trying to find out more information about this restaurant in particular, but also the history of the Chinese restaurant in LA, and in general, the phenomenon of the Chinese restaurant menu: how to interpret it on many levels, literary, socially, historically, institutionally, and of course, culinarily.

Some of the questions I am trying to answer about this menu/restaurant are:

1. (If you were from LA in the 60's) Who exactly was the restaurant catering to? Who was the intended clientele?
2. The food seems fairly "Americanized"...i.e. their famous Chinese Chicken Salad, and Sweet and Sour Chicken Sticks. However, one of the primary questions I have about this and other seemingly Americanized Chinese restaurants is: how authentic is the food really? Are these dishes based on traditional Chinese preparations and only changed for the American palate (especially that of the 1965 restaurant goer who would not have been exposed to the range of ethnic food that abounds today)? Or are they entirely made up for an American audience?
3. Was there another all-Chinese menu for the restaurant? Is that common practice? (It certainly is an urban myth.) If so, how would the food differ?

I would truly appreciate any thoughts you have on these questions, or other ideas you have about Chinese restaurants in America, the idea of authenticity in ethnic restaurants, ethnic restaurant menus, or whatever else comes to mind regarding this topic.

I am new to this website, so thank you in advance for your thoughts!

Claire

p.s. I have included the URL for the menu for further reference on menu items that people may want to weigh in on.

Link: http://dbase1.lapl.org/dbtw-wpd/exec/...

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  1. Thanks for the very interesting post and link.

    One thing that comes to mind is that 1965 -- according to Calvin Trillin and others -- is a very important year for American restaurants, because that was the year the immigration laws were expanded to allow many more immigrants from places like China, thus allowing more authentic cuisines to enter the US and flourish.

    1. If I were you, I'd post a 'heads up' posting on the LA board, complete with a link to your post. I'm sure you'll get more hits.

      There are multiple google hits re: "American Chinese food"... many very interesting. In fact I remember once reading a blog of a woman who spent her time photographing American Chinese restaurants (and their menus) from locations all over the country.

      Mr. Taster

      1 Reply
      1. re: Mr. Taster

        You're probably thinking of Oakland artist Indigo Som who photographs Chinese restaurants in the Heartland and also collects Chinese restaurant menus.

        The real Chinese restaurant menu guru, though, is Harley Spiller.

        Link: http://agentofchaos.com/ic/

      2. Ditto with the other posters, but I also remember a post here on chowhound from a woman who had done a a graduate (?) or conference thesis on the connection between Jews and Chinese food in NYC. As I recall, there was some good history on the evolution of some the dishes you're researching. It was very interesting and informative...hope you can retreive in here. Maybe someone will have a more specific link/thread for you.

        1 Reply
        1. re: berkleybabe

          You're probably thinking about Hanna Miller's paper, "Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food their Ethnic Cuisine," linked below.

          There's another one on "Safe Treyf" at http://www.soc.qc.edu/Staff/levine/NY....

          Link: http://eatingchinese.org/miller.pdf

        2. I used to eat lunch, quite often, at New Moon, back in the late 60's and early 70's. There was also another Chinese resto on the same street, whose name escapes me. I think it's been discused here, though I think it closed or moved long ago. Hopefully someone will post and jog my memory. Very similar food and clientele, though I recall that the second one was frequented by a lot of police detectives and other government employee, while New Moon was the choice of a lot of garment area people.

          The crowd I remember was almost totally Caucasian, as this was before the SoCal poulation growth had really included as many immigrants from Asia, or even from Mexico & Central America, as it reflects today.

          I don't recall ever knowing of another menu. I may be wrong, but I don't think the Chinese population of LA frequented this place at any time of day. Chinatown was pretty much it back then. Monterey Park, and the other San Gabriel Valley areas certainly weren't Asian population centers then.

          I used to travel to Hong Kong and Taiwan a lot in those years, and the food at New Moon was most definitely for an American audience. Much more like New York 'Chinese' food that anything authentic. Cantonese would be the only regional cuisine that would even come close to it.

          What went on in the evening I can't comment on, but I doubt it would have been much different.

          5 Replies
          1. re: Midlife

            There were two restaurants down the street from New Moon. They were Man Fook Low and Paul's Kitchen. Man Fook Low was THE PLACE for alleged authentic Chinese food. First I ever learned of dim sum was there in 1959. You want to research truly Americanized Chines food check out leads on Ah Fong's on Sunset and Laurel.

            1. re: Hugh Lipton

              Thanks for that. I ate at both Man Fook Low and Paul's Kitchen many times baxk in the same time frame. Just a bit of memory fog. Later became a fan of Yang Chow, on Broadway, which opened in the later 70's I think.

              Ah Fong also had a branch on Beverly Drive in BH. Someone here confirmed my recollection of the exact location a while back. I was never aware of the other locations they had.

              As I recall, Man Fook Low and Yang Chow were both much more 'authentic'.

              1. re: Midlife

                When I was a kid in the 60's our family used to drive from Brentwood to downtown to eat at Man Fook Low. I don't really remember specific dishes other than maybe sweet & sour pork. Then in the mid-70's after my folks got divorced and each remarried, my stepdad liked Paul's Kitchen better than Man Fook Low, so we went to Paul's Kitchen. It pissed me off. I always thought my stepdad wanted to one-up my dad in the Chinese food dept. I didn't want to like Paul's Kitchen. But never in all those trips downtown did we go to New Moon and I'd never heard of it until I started reading about it here.

                1. re: Midlife

                  Ah Fong's was operated by Chinese American character actor Benson Fong who, admitted many a time, that his restaurants' version of Cantonese cuisine fell a few notches below on the authenticity and taste meter.

                  1. re: Midlife

                    I loved Man FooK Low in L.A. I worked in Vernon 1975-93 and after discovering the restaurant often ate there and also brought many of their dim sum (espcially the Shui mai dumplings 35 cents each ) back to work, sometimes as many as 100 at a time. Great with hot mustard. The Takeout lady at the front was very stingy with Napkins and forks - Also loved the bar-b-cued pork from the Chinese butcher shop a few doors down. Now both sadly gone.

              2. I used be a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Chicago catering to mostly Jewish clientele in the 60's. The New Moon menu is definitely catering to non-Chinese customers. But even chop suey had it's origin from Chinese cooking. So many of these dishes definitely had Chinese origins, but modified to suite the western taste.

                All Chinese restaurants have "secret" menus. If you are Chinese you go in and start talking Cantonese, the kitchen usually can fix something more "authentic" for you. I have done it in Chinese restaurants in Rome, Budespesh, and Prague. In fact whenever we encounter Chinese restaurants in strange and unusual places we almost never order from the menu.

                1. c
                  Claire Raffel

                  Thanks all for the incredibly helpful tips and leads to people like Harley Spiller!

                  1. One of your sites listed Kan's in San Francisco at 708 Grant Ave circa 1961, but did not show any images. Do you have a copy of Kan's menu in 1961? Kan's was an upscale restaurant in S.F. at about that time! My wedding banquet was at Kan's in 1958. If you have any additional info on Kan's, I'd love to see further on it!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: CYL

                      It looks like you can see the menu if you make an appointment to go to the rare books room at the LA central library. Are you local to LA?

                      http://www.lapl.org/central/rare_book...

                    2. I grew up in Monterey Park in the late 70's, about the time when the San Gabriel Valley was becoming real Asian Centers. Many of the Chinese were moving from Chinatown to the east. By this time, more and more authentic restaurants and dishes started showing up in restaurants.

                      My theory is that in the 60's there just weren't that many "Asian" produce in any steady supply. You couldn't find things like gai lan, bok choy, ong choy, bitter melons, etc. So people had to make substitutions with what they had. For example, the simple Cantonese dish which is simply stir fried gai lan and beef wasn't possible, because of the lack of gai lan. So they substitued regular old broccoli, probably to simulate the stocky parts. Although it was inauthentic, it was popular enough that you can still find broccoli beef today. By the 70s and 80s they started growing gai lan and other vegetables locally, so restaurants could return to the authentic ingredient, which is what you'll find in a real Chinese restaurant. I think that's also why some people will call gai lan "chinese broccoli".

                      I'm sure there's more evidence of substituting local produce for something you can't find.

                      1. l
                        littlestevie

                        one place that nobody mentioned was the Yee Ming Low on the outskirts of Chinatown. They had the best bar next door. It was supposed to have been an alter from a junk down in the harbor. The food was never that great or really even that good, but the drinks were strong and after a couple of mai-tais I really did not care. The place is long since closed, but the bar lives on in a restaurant in Glendale.