Friday, October 19, 2012

Where Are the Snow Peas of Yesteryear?

Monday, October 15, 2012
Every so often, someone asks me for a Chinatown restaurant recommendation. My typical answer, in the best lawyer-like fashion, is "It all depends." One has to consider key elements, such as price, mood, number of guests, degree of hunger, familiarity with Chinese cuisine, and time available, before making such a critical determination on behalf of others. I would be disappointed in myself if I, in turn, disappointed my interrogator and her companions. Fortunately, I recalled that Calvin Trillin has faced this issue over decades and once came up with an ingenious way to address it by imagining that he was to escort Chairman Mao (actually already dead) to dinner. They would not linger in one establishment, but rather go from place to place, dish to dish. He published his itinerary in "Mao and Me," contained in the brilliant collection Alice Let’s Eat (1978), which is also incorporated into The Tummy Trilogy, a gift of love only equaled by a boxed set of 2000 Year Old Man recordings.

Fortunately, my Trillin collection is near complete, and I found the volume quickly. However, upon rereading the essay this evening, I found that my memory was imperfect. Trillin did not limit his imagined excursion with Chairman Mao to Chinatown, but rather encompassed New York restaurants of all stripes. More surprising, or maybe not, was how few of Trillin’s selections survive to this day. After all, in 1978, I was living 2,500 miles away, married to a different tall, dark-haired woman, owned a struggling computer business, and attended no Mets or Rangers games. In my case, plus ça change, plus ça change.

Note that Trillin used short versions of the names of the establishments, provided no addresses, and only made general neighborhood references.

Chef Ma’s – no trace.

Say Eng Lok, once at 5 East Broadway. Mimi Sheraton gave it a rave review in the New York Times on June 11, 1982, but I found the following comment to be the most edifying: "Say Eng Look means 4-5-6, and this East Broadway restaurant shouldn’t be confused with the 4-5-6 restaurant that is opposite on Chatham Square."

Foo Joy – There’s one in Allentown, PA.

Gage & Tollner’s was in business from 1879 until 2004, all but the first 15 years in a beautiful Victorian setting with 36 gas lamps. Tragically, it was succeeded by a T.G.I. Friday’s and then Arby’s, each quickly closing.

Tito’s – Tito’s Italian Grill & Wine Shop, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho? That’s the best I can do.

Coach House – Once a lovely spot in Greenwich Village.

Thomforde’s presents a challenge. Thomforde’s Ice Creams & Fine Confectionary was at 351 West 125th Street (at St. Nicholas Avenue) in Harlem, opening in 1903. I can’t find out when it closed, but research shows that it was still operating while I was at City College, often getting off the subway at 125th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Yet, I am not sure that I honestly recollect it. While I had little disposable income in those days, is it possible that I practiced self-denial to that extreme?

The Parkway on the Lower East side served the finest in unhealthy Rumanian Jewish food.

Still Around
Szechuan Cuisine for eggplant with garlic, at 1345 Second Avenue, but originally somewhere else. It has another branch at 40-21 Main Street, in Flushing, which now has its own large Chinatown.

Phoenix Garden for "Pepper and Salty Shrimp," used to be located in the middle of the Chinatown Arcade that runs between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery. Notably, Ed Koch had a seizure there while eating lunch. It is now at 242 East 40th Street.

Nathan’s in Coney Island for French fries.

Peter Luger’s for steak, a recommendation I respect, but usually skip because of its inconvenient location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Junior’s for cheesecake. The original restaurant still operates on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, but has expanded to scattered locations, such as Grand Central Station and Foxwoods Casino. The cheesecake is also available through various retail and mail order outlets.

Focacceria for a spleen sandwich. There is an Italian sandwich shop bearing this name at 87 MacDougal Street, a few short blocks from Trillin’s home, but it offers nothing more exotic than a Fresh Mozzarella, Vine Ripened Tomato, Roasted Peppers & Basil Sandwich at $9. You may choose rosemary focaccia, tomato focaccia or straight Italian bread for your sandwich at no extra charge.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
I had lunch with a third-year Cardozo Law student through the mentor program. He was a bright, interesting young man, but he erred badly by bringing his own lunch.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012
I found a major gaffe. According to my chronological list of new restaurants visited, I ate at Shanghai Gourmet, 23 Pell Street, in August 2010. However, nothing appeared about it in my writings then or since. This is especially disappointing, because I had an excellent lunch there today, confident that I was not breaking new ground.

Shanghai Gourmet offers a variety of lunch plates, with soup and rice, hovering around $6. I ordered orange flavor chicken ($5.95), a portion that might have fetched $10 somewhere else. The sticky, tangy, tasty sauce contained tangerine peels and chile peppers and almost led me to lick the plate. I did not even mind the presence of four pieces of insanely green broccoli decorating the plate. The hot and sour soup was, indeed, hot and sour and hot in temperature, an excellent example of this staple. However, the crowning achievement of the restaurant (which I must have skipped on my earlier unrecorded visit) was its scallion pancake ($2.25) – no, let me remove the parentheses – only $2.25 for the best scallion pancake I’ve ever had. Crispy, not greasy, scallions visible to the eye and the tongue. Wonderful, but. While this was the best scallion pancake I’ve ever had, its consumption was compromised by the sequence in which I ingested my food. The soup was served first, and its hot and sourness properly lingered even after I made all gone. However, this neutralized the salty sweetness of the ginger/soy/rice wine vinegar dipping sauce that always accompanies a scallion pancake, which arrived next. That sauce, which like melted butter or hot fudge, doesn’t really need anything else to justify its existence. So, I was unhappy that I could not taste the sauce after the soup. I’ll have to remember next time to start lunch with the scallion pancake in order to produce smiles for the rest of the afternoon. Skipping the soup is not an alternative because (A) it’s free, (B) it’s very good.

Thursday, October 18, 2012
Speaking to a North Carolina radio station, Tagg Romney, the eldest of Mitt’s five pacifist sons, said he wanted to "take a swing" at Barack Obama during Tuesday night’s debate. The Taggster was particularly upset that the Obama campaign has set out to make his father "someone’s he’s not." You know, I thought that the Mitt Romney campaign was dedicated to making him someone he’s not.

Friday, October 19, 2012
The ABA (American Bar Association) Journal offers an on-line edition, which is transmitted weekly. Today, one article has this headline: "Some Law Firms Are Quoting ‘Suicidal Prices,’ with Possibility of More Dissolutions, Consultant Says." Analysis supposedly shows that "a high degree of fixed costs, including occupancy and compensation" have led to this risky path. The article ends with the consultant observing that 25 years ago average partner pay at the nation’s top 100 law firms was 11 times higher than that of the average American worker, while today it is 23 times higher. I wonder how much that multiple has to be reduced in order to give the average American worker access to some of the heavy hitters of the legal profession?


  1. Alan, I well remember Foo Joy, which was on Division Street, just beyond Say Eng Look as you walked away from Chatham Square. It was there in the 60s and was the only Fukienese style restaurant at the time. The pork chops were their specialty. I imagine there are many Fukienese restaurants now. Do you have one to recommend? My best, Paul B.

  2. I ate at Thomfordes when I was a volunteer working for Bayard Rustin in the civil rights movement office on 125th -- unless someone with dough treated us to lunch at Frank's, a much more upscale restaurant near the Apollo. Thomfordes had great burgers and so-so fries...