The Wong Yie family portrait from Greg Hand’s Cincinnati Curiosities blog.
Yesterday I wrote about the San Francisco Mandarin Restaurant’s influence on Chinese food in America. Today, I honor the pioneers of Chinese food in Cincinnati.
Chinese food, in Cantonese form of ‘Chop Suey Houses’, had made it to Cincinnati by 1900. The 1907 Cincinnati Enquirer reported 10 such chop suey houses, in less desirable neighborhoods, catering to a diverse working class clientele. A revolution against the Quing dynasty was the reason for Cantonese immigration, and the entire Chinese community in Cincinnati in 1920 was from Canton, numbering under 20. This was small compared to other communities like Dayton, which had over 150 at the same time. All were men and worked in either laundries or restaurants.
Chop suey is said to have been introduced to the U.S. by the chef of a Chinese envoy headed by Li Hongzhang, and served at a banquet in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1896. It was called in the papers ‘chow chop suey’ an approximation of the Cantonese dish ‘chao zasui,’ a dish of stir fried animal intestines with vegetables. It was called ‘chop soy’ in Cincinnati. This 1896 event created a chop suey craze that lasted until the 1940s.
Although he wasn’t the first, Wong Yie (1875-1926) was the first proprietor to take Cantonese-Chinese food out of the Cincinnati ‘underworld’ and into the elite as an exotic dining affair. Not only the dishes, but the queer method of eating with chopsticks, was comical and interesting to elites who came to experience this new cuisine.
He had come to Cincinnati via Harvard, to help his cousin Wong Kee run a restaurant in Cincy. Wong Yie was manager of a restaurant called the Golden Dragon at Sixth and Walnut, from 1900-1914, owned by a man called “Shanghai Lou.” Then in 1922 he renovated the second floor of a building at 28 east 6th street and Main in the Washington Bank Building. By 1926 it had become Wong Yie’s Famous Restaurant. His restaurant was large, clean and exotic – with large red Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, ‘tastefully decorated.’
Menu items at Wong Yie’s in 1922 were chow mein, yoco mein (or Yaka Mein – a type of beef noodle soup), chicken foo young, and chop suey.
What put Wong Yie ahead of the other Chop Suey houses was his panache for making the headlines. He was educated and articulate, and spoke in public in front of groups like the Advertising Club. As such, Wong Yie became the spokesperson for his community. He hosted many Chinese New Year’s parties at the restaurant, throwing a big one in 1912 to celebrate the birth of the Republic of China that year. In 1914, Wong Yie and his wife Lee Mon, celebrated the birth of their daughter, Wong Gut Ting, the first Chinese-American born in Cincinnati.
Wong Yie’s became the de facto meeting spot for groups like the Kiwanis Club, the City Club and numerous Women’s Auxiliary clubs. After Wong Yie’s death in 1926 his wife and children – daughters Ping and Ting, and son, Lan – took over the restaurant, running it into the 1960s, and paving the way for other Chinese restaurants in Cincinnati.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Szechuan food first came to Cincinnati. It was Thomas Li, who opened the Yum Yum restaurant on Race Street. He billed the Yum Yum from the beginning as offering exclusively authentic Hunan-Szechuan spicy foods – ‘the favorite of Chinese emperors’, just as Celia Chang had marketed her Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco in 1961. One of the earliest dishes they promoted was their “Three-Fresh” – pork, shrimp, and abalone (a type of snail) cooked with mushrooms and bamboo shoots, along with Ding Dong Chicken, a spicy Szechuan dish they still serve today. Yum Yum remains one of the oldest continually operating Chinese restaurants today, outliving the adult bookstore next to them.
The Yum Yum Restaurant and their Ding Dong Chicken signature dish.
Shortly after Yum Yum’s opening in 1977, two brothers Larry and Bing Moy, opened respectively China Moon in Montgomery, and then China Gourmet in Hyde Park. China Moon became well known for their fantastic Dim Sum on Sundays. This was where I first tasted tripe with a Chinese friend in grad school. China Gourmet took direction from the Mandarin in offering high end, non-kitchy Chinese food of Northern China – Hunan and Szechuan, while also offering higher end Cantonese food with which Americans were familiar. They even have a signature dish – squab lettuce wraps – that’s a direct steal from Mandarin’s dish.
Today most Chinese restaurants are adding Vietnamese, Korean, and even sushi their menus to get a piece of the Asian fusian explosion. A new Szechuan restaurant, Sichuan Chili is getting rave reviews in Evendale.