While attending California State University at Hayward (now known as CSU East Bay) in 1970, I car-pooled one semester with a Chinese-American buddy because we lived near each other in the Oakland Hills and we had similar schedules.
One Friday Bob mentioned that he and some friends had lunch in Oakland’s Chinatown each Saturday and asked if I would like to join them the following day. Of course, I said yes.
My father was a big fan of Chinese food, but he always feared that we weren’t ordering the right stuff and might be missing out. When I mentioned I was going to have lunch with some Chinese American friends, he was really excited and asked me to take notes so that we could return to the same restaurant and order the same dishes.
Joy Luck Restaurant
Bob picked me up the following day and drove me to Chinatown. As it turned out, we were going to eat at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, Joy Luck Restaurant, which I have always suspected was the inspiration for the title of the novel, “The Joy Luck Club”, by Amy Tan, who also grew up in Oakland.
I was introduced to Bob’s friends, and he explained to me how it worked. Each person would order one dish and then we would share them family style. They would also order “one dish for the table”.
“You can’t order that, Mike!” Bob said. “It’s not really Chinese food. It’s just for Americans.”
“Well, I’m an American, and I like it,” I said. “You said everyone got to choose one dish, and that’s my choice.”
After a heated discussion, Bob said. “In that case, you’re going to have to eat it all by yourself because none of us are going to touch it.”
To which I said, “No problem!!!”
The Big Surprise in Little China
“It looks really good, too” someone else said when the dish came into view.
“Who ordered that?” a third person said when the waiter put the dish on the table.
Chopsticks descended on the dish like piranha on a carcass.
When someone else asked, “Who ordered that?” I somewhat tentatively said, “I did!”
Everyone looked at me.
“I thought you ordered sweet and sour pork,” someone said.
“I did!” I said. “I thought you guys said you didn’t like sweet and sour pork!”
One by one they admitted that they had never actually tried sweet and sour pork. Their parents had told them it “wasn’t really Chinese” and that it was “just for Americans”. But they all admitted that they liked it, and Bob suggested they order another order of it because I had only gotten one piece.
When I got home, my father asked if I had taken notes, and I said, “No, I forgot. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve been invited back next week.”
The following week, there were a couple of old faces and a few new faces. After I was introduced to the new faces, Bob said, “Rather than everyone ordering a dish, I think we should let Mike order. He really knows Chinese food!”
This drew as much opposition from the new faces as my ordering of sweet and sour pork had drawn the week before.
But the old faces backed Bob up. “Hey guys, I agree with Bob,” one of them said. “Mike ordered the best dish last week. I’m serious! I think we should let him do the ordering. Let’s see what he comes up with.”
When one of the new faces asked what I had ordered, he said, “Wait and see! It’s a surprise!”
So I ordered the same stuff my father would have ordered: in addition to pineapple sweet and sour pork, I ordered shrimp fried rice, almond chicken ding, beef chow main, egg drop soup, and a few other dishes that I can’t remember.
At the of the end of meal, one of the new faces said, “I have to tell you, Mike. That was the best Chinese meal I have ever had!”
“I have to agree!” someone else said.
A couple of people actually asked me to repeat the names of the dishes so they could write them and order them the next time they ate out with their families.
When I got home, my father asked if I had remembered to take notes, and I said, “No, it wasn’t necessary. But a few of the other people at lunch did.”
My father assumed that they must have been other non-Chinese-Americans, but I said no. I was the only non-Chinese American there.
I explained that the dish I had ordered the week before was pineapple sweet and sour pork, and it been such a big hit that they asked me to order some of my other favorite dishes. I then listed the dishes one by one, and my father said, “But that’s exactly what WE order when WE eat at Chinese restaurants!”
“I know,” I said. “And there wasn’t one dish that they didn’t like!”
If I can fast forward a few decades, during my first visit to Guangzhou, a.k.a. Canton, I dined at a cavernous Cantonese restaurant that was targeted at locals. Not only was pineapple sweet and sour pork featured prominently on the menu as one of their “signature dishes”, I noticed on my way to and from the men’s room that it was, in fact, on many if not most of the tables.
So it IS Chinese food after all, and it IS very popular in Southern China. Despite what the parents of my Chinese American friends had told them … And despite living in Hong Kong for 25 years and traveling extensively in China, it is STILL my favorite Chinese dish!
Although I haven’t eaten there in decades years, I believe the Joy Luck Restaurant still exists. It is located in Chinatown at 327 – 8th Street in Oakland, California.
By Michael Taylor, Publisher of the “Accidental Travel Writer”.
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