4160 Monument Road at Stout Road
(in the Pathmark Shopping Center)
My entire family left our home every Sunday late afternoon for Chinatown. We drove enveloped within the cabin of a new shining black 1954 Buick Century whose chrome-laden bumpers reflected light onto every building we passed. In dense traffic near the Chinese Wall, the car's radio hypnotized my sister and me with the suspense of the Shadow, followed by the blurry drawls of Rochester bemoaning the penny-pinching propensities of Jack Benny.
In the mid-fifties, two Chinese restaurants created blocklong lines: South China on 9th Street near Vine and Shanghai Garden on Race at 919. The queues were populated by real eaters, those whose bellies had stretch marks actually visible through the bloated transparency of thin cotton shirts, blouses, pants or skirts. It was not the custom to travel to Chinatown to dine; rather to stuff oneself silly until glutted, then rest, and start all over again instantly.
Father ordered for the four of us, "Won-Ton Soup for six, please, extra noodles; eight shrimp egg rolls, extra mustard; two chicken chow mein; four orders of spareribs; three shrimp-in-lobster sauce, a pork fried rice and two white rices; one pepper steak."
Mom: "Won't be enough."
Pop: "All right, an egg foo and a shrimp chow mein."
Mom: "Won't be enough."
Pop: "We'll rest; we'll see."
Our waiter rattled off the choices in chronologically correct Chinese (the order in which each was to be served), pausing in between those for which we may have to wait. We drooled and nodded as if his banter were timed by a baton-like chopstick, conducting our stomachs to growl.
No sooner did our pompadoured waiter disappear through red vinyl doors into a bustling kitchen, than he was out again rolling a huge silver butler full of soup tureens, domed platters, glass teapots, bowls, dishes, silverware, cellophane packets of soy and, of course, a plethora of two-gallon pitchers of icewater. Needless to say, the size of the gratuity left at the end of the meal correlated in direct proportion to the alacrity with which plastic waterglasses were refilled during the repast.
As children, we were to learn the true meaning of charity.
Mom: "Silly Richard, you didn't order ice cream; it comes with the Column B meal!"
Me: "Ma, I can't breathe, I'll bust."
Mom: "That's no excuse Mister-Think-Of-Yourself-Only-Selfish-Person. Your sister maybe wants some extra. Try remembering to consider someone other than yourself."
It seemed incomprehensible, viewing my little sister across the table, how she could even open her mouth. She'd fallen into a stuporous coma after having willfully devoured humongous piles of rolls, noodles, ribs, goos and meins. Splatterings of rice dribbled from her messy mouth.
Nevertheless Mom was able to force her lips open involuntarily by placing a thumb and index finger on either side of the kid's cheeks, and pressing. It was not thereafter difficult to spoon-feed my sister the speckled vanilla ice cream I'd eventually ordered to be charitable.
Throughout the ride home, lactic explosions emanate from my sister’s biliously bulging body punctuating the radio airwave banter of Bert Parks on Name That Tune, and making cacophony of Hal March's Sixty-Four Dollar questions. Near home, Kate Smith chokes while attempting to sing God Bless America.
Upon entering Chun Hing, one views forty maroon four-seater billowy booths, a panopticon of a restaurant clearly girded in the old style of assorted rectangular or circular sizes in a room that's silky-silvery-wall-papered and huge. To your left sits Governor Corbett, former Mayor and Governor Ed Rendell, and Mayor Nutter. Not actually them, but their photos taken while seated somewhere far away.
I began patronizing this eatery over 35 years ago when I discovered it at 15th and Spruce, and then it transported its Column A’s and Column B’s to Monument Road near City Avenue, the closest eatery to the NBC and WPVI television stations. So, the Great Walls of Chun Hing are also adorned with historical (and sometimes hysterical) visages of youthful barely framed signed photographs of Hurricane Schwartz, Cathy Gandalfo, Rob Jennings, Marc Howard, Anita Brickman, Chad Pradell and a beaming Renee Chenault-Fattah.
If you ask the owner why there are no portraits of the judiciary, he replies, "Judges too full abalone."
Here’s what not to miss:
1) Shredded Pork and Preserved Turnip Soup ($2.80): piles of glistening pork strips enveloped in a dark broth simmering with sliced, quartered turnips and shitake mushrooms. String bean shreds abound to add verdant color. This is not your simply wantonly prepared soup concoction. Each spoonful has depth and demeanor. (Avoid egg-rolls, the Peking Duck roll; too greasy.)
2) Brazenly brown Hot and Sour Soup ($2.80): A textured, but not gelatinous bowl of Goldilocks’ “not too sour and not too hot” liquid bath for sliced button mushrooms and chopped Chinese vegetables. The meld warms your heart in fairy-tale fashion.
3) Steamed Meat Dumplings (get an order and a half: 12 dumplings, because as large and brilliantly buoyant as they appear, they seem to disappear when your mouth begins to kiss their entrance upon your lips. The surrounding skin is membrane-thin, and the meat as juicy as fruit. A red sweet dipping sauce is served with the dumplings, and its best to also request bite-bristling chili oil and hot Chinese mustard. The engorged curvaceous crescents are invigorating and blessed, the best in the city.
4) Squid in Special Five Spice Seasonings ($11.35): Like lightly coated calamari, these delicately al dente morsels simply grasp and generously donate the full aura of Chinese tastes and aftertastes. It’s made to be scalding-spicy, so ask for a slightly milder version. Shredded bok choy and impossibly thin scallion sprinkles surround the platter’s essence.
5) Sliced Pork with String Beans in Garlic Sauce ($12.95) or Sliced Pork Szechuan Style (double cooked) ($9.95), both blazing with chunks of marinated pork, the former with pea pods and mushrooms, the latter more heated and oiled and golden, fulfilling any Canton, Hunan and Szechuan proclivities.
6) Shrimp with String Beans in Garlic Sauce ($12.95): These plumpest shelled shrimp are in fetal positions among deeply buttered high mounds of beans, done perfectly to a crunch.
The recipes are old-time, adapted toward Western tastes, tested for sublime overindulging and gorgeously displayed. Repeat customers are all known by first names by a wait staff that has remained the same for decades, serving so expertly that the food mirrors their joy in seeing you as a most fortunate cookie.