One of the earliest shared memories I have with my brother and sister is of a Chinese restaurant we went to quite often as a young family. Not even my parents remember the name of the place, but surely it was something like Golden Dragon, Golden Moon, or Golden Sunset. It was hidden in a small strip mall on Colerain Avenue near Northgate just off of Interstate 275.
For my family, eating there was stepping into a fantastical new world. It was nothing like Frisch’s, Scoreburger, or Skyline, or the other small handful of restaurants available to us in early 1980s northwest Cincinnati. It was decorated with oversized Chinese lanterns, jade dragons and cloisonne ceramics that looked like they could have been in any Quing Dynasty palace. The tables were dressed in stiff white linen tablecloths and set with engraved bone chopsticks, which of course we didn’t know how to use. A stern Chinese woman in a high collar jacket took our order and made no small talk. It was reminiscent of the scene from A Christmas Story when they ate their Christmas dinner at the formal Chinese restaurant. And like that movie, it seemed like we were always the only family in the entire restaurant.
The food was presented dramatically in metal cloches and revealed by the servers. This was the early 80s, before the days of the fast food Chinese take out places that are now everywhere. We would order several different dishes and share them amongst the five of us. That’s probably why to this day I will stab into someone’s plate unannounced when dining with friends or coworkers.
We can thank Cantonese immigrant Wong Yie for making Chinese food in Greater Cincinnati a formal affair. He took the seedy Chop Suey house atmosphere from the back alley to the main business district with the opening of his restaurant in 1922. And he validated Chinese food as a legit category for the largely Germanic or at least European Cincinnati public, paving the way for hundreds of local Chinese restaurants.
Having just seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the theatre, my weird pre-teen mind was sure one of those cloche-lifts would reveal a dish of chilled monkey brains as in the movie. But ours revealed the standard chow mein, egg foo young (which was me and my brother’s fave), and chop suey of an 80s Cincinnati Cantonese restaurant.
If we were lucky, we’d get the hilarious Pupu platter served on a metal lazy Susan with a variety of Chinese finger foods like egg rolls, skewered beef, and something new called crab Rangoon that we all immediately loved. La Choy, our go-to frozen Chinese appetizer brand did not yet offer the Rangoon. But that was a rare treat and usually only in celebration of someone’s birthday.
What we didn’t know was that the Pupu platter was not really Chinese, but Hawaiian and first served by Don the Beachcomber in 1934 at his Hollywood, California, Polynesian themed restaurant . It was adapted to American Chinese restaurants in 1969 and quickly became more associated with Chinese food than Polynesian. In the Hawaiian language, the word pu-pu denotes something like relish, appetizer, hors d’oeuvre, or canape. So, in a sense it was like the free relish tray of rye bread and pickled herring we were accustomed to getting at Schuller’s Wigwam in College Hill, but from the opposite end of the world.
What we also didn’t know was that the Rangoon that we loved was neither Chinese nor Asian at all, but an American dish invented in the 1950s by Victor Bergeron at his Polynesian-style restaurant Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. Victor claimed the appetizer was based on an authentic Burmese recipe of which Rangoon (now Yangon) is the capital city. But cream cheese was not something readily available to the Burmese, so that story is a bit hard to swallow. But no foul there – in Cincinnati we also have a knack for naming food items after something that they’re not. Examples are the cottage ham (not a ham, but pork shoulder) and city chicken (not chicken, but cubed pork).
The place was strange and elegant and something that we all loved equally and shared together for several years. It put us all on the same level – it was as exotic to my parents as it was to us kids and provided an interesting atmosphere to connect as a family. Little did my parents know that their two young sons would both later travel extensively with their careers in Asia and to Polynesia, and become super-adept at using chopsticks, or that their grandchildren would come to love sushi, or that Mandarin would become a language option in Cincinnati high schools. To us the now forgotten named Chinese restaurant was a place to take us outside of our normal routine and just enjoy a fun family meal.