Iversen has meticulously gathered the tales, recipes, and cultural traditions that define Chicago’s culinary past and present. Rich with firsthand accounts from local restaurateurs, their families, long-time customers, and staff, Local Flavor is a community-driven look at Chicago through a gastronomical lens.
Including recipes for popular dishes from each restaurant that readers can try at home, Local Flavor weaves together ethnography, family, and food history into a story that will enthrall both food and Chicago history lovers.
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The Old Guard of Chinatown
Chicago's Chinatown, centered at Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue about two miles south of Chicago's Loop, was established in 1912. It is not just difficult to find a Chinese restaurant that has remained in the same family since this neighborhood was established — it is impossible. I did find, however, the longest continually operated Chinese restaurant in Chinatown: Won Kow.
Established in 1928 by the influential Moy family, Won Kow resides on the second floor of an iconic three-story structure at 2237 South Wentworth. On the ground floor, the Hoypoloi Gallery carries eclectic art. Offices are on the third. Guardian lions, also known as Foo dogs, stand watch at the building's entrance. The center of the building is flanked by pagoda-like towers.
Won Kow's three-part sign, likely the original, strains massive chains out front, advertising "Chinese Restaurant" and "Cocktails" in English and in Chinese characters. The façade hasn't changed much since the building was completed, also in 1928. It was designed by Michaelsen & Rognstad, the same architectural firm that designed the similarly ornate Pui Tak building across the street. The former headquarters of the On Leong Merchant's Association, Pui Tak currently houses a social service agency run by the Chinese Christian Union Church. It is the only structure in Chinatown with landmark designation. Decorative tiles on Pui Tak's façade, created by the Teco Pottery Company in Crystal Lake, Illinois, boast an array of vibrant colors, from turquoise to mustard yellow to jade green (Bronson, Chiu, and Ho 2011).
The distinctive Won Kow and Pui Tak buildings serve as an anchor to the northern portal of Chinatown's commercial district on Wentworth. The gateway over Wentworth at Cermak is inscribed with the Chinese characters for tian xia wei gong (public spiritedness rules the world). Signs along the street are in both traditional Chinese characters and in English.
Won Kow, which translates to "the whole world," is currently owned and operated by Peter Huey and his nephew, David Hoy. Peter and his now-late brother Robert purchased the building in 1970 from Ronald Moy, the original owner's son. The brothers initially leased Won Kow to a restaurateur also named Moy. ("A different Moy," says Peter.)
Peter's first job in the restaurant business, coincidentally, was serving tables at Won Kow, after he first moved to Chicago from Hong Kong in 1950 during the post–World War II immigration wave that boosted Chinatown's population. After a few months, he moved on to own and operate several restaurants in the Chicagoland area, including Jade East on Cermak. Though all of these ventures were successful, he had grown weary of the long, exhausting hours of restaurant life and didn't plan on operating another one. When he and Robert purchased Won Kow's building in 1970, they planned on being only landlords, not restaurateurs.
In the late 1980s, however, Won Kow's tenant left. "They didn't take care of it," Peter says. "They moved out, and I took over." Peter and Robert performed an extensive renovation of Won Kow's interior, which had remained untouched since 1928. They planned on selling after, but no offers came in. "Somebody says, 'How come you don't want to open?' I say, 'I don't want to open; I want to sell it,'" says Peter. "And then I talked to my brother, and I say, 'We might as well open it, and then try to sell it.' When I finish remodeling, almost 1990. So I open it up, and when I open up, then, you know, the business is good and doing well. So then we never mentioned about selling it. Soon enough, now I find out it's twenty-five years gone."
Now in his nineties, Peter still climbs the steep stairs up to the restaurant every morning to manage the dim sum and lunch shifts. Restaurant life seems to agree with Peter, who moves quite nimbly for a man in his tenth decade. Other than diabetes, which he says he manages with a restricted diet, he seems quite vibrant and healthy. A slow, sweet smile comes to his face easily. On most days, he is dressed in a sports jacket and dress pants, working in the tiny office near the entrance amid piles of paperwork and handwritten reservations tacked on the walls.
Peter's memory is as sharp as the chef's knives lined up like soldiers in the kitchen. But he doesn't realize what a treasure trove of memories he holds. Or, if he does, he is shy, almost embarrassed, to offer it. One day, I called Peter to ask if I could come in for one of our chats. Sure, he said, come on in. Then, after a short pause, he asked, "You don't think you can find anybody better than me, huh?" After assuring him that he was indeed a valuable historian not only for Won Kow, but for Chicago's Chinatown, he relented. "I do what I can, that's all."
Since the late 1980s remodeling project, Won Kow's dining room hasn't changed much. The best seats in the house overlook South Wentworth Avenue from a bank of windows. Red paper lanterns advertising Tsingtao beer dangle from the ceiling. Wood paneling and brass railings give it a retro feel, while an enormous, backlit photo of Hong Kong's Kowloon Bay presides over a wall near the entrance. Like many lifelong restaurateurs, Peter seems happiest when working. "I don't have much to do, so I take care of it," he says of his charge, the slow, kind smile always at the ready. "If I give it up, I don't know what to do."
This Is a Moy Town
The vast majority of Chinese immigrants who first came to the United States were from the Toisan area of Guangdong Province in southern China, north of Hong Kong. When U.S. ships came to China to recruit cheap labor in the mid-1800s, Toisan was the district most accessible to the sea. Chinese workers first came to San Francisco, where they labored on western farms; served as miners, cooks, and laundrymen; and helped build the first transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869.
As more and more Chinese immigrants arrived, filling more and more jobs, anti-Chinese sentiment spread. Congress responded with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted the number of Chinese workers in the United States and limited travel freedoms for those already living here. The act also prohibited Chinese women from entering the United States unless they were married to teachers, students, or business owners (Chinatown Museum Foundation 2005). This sentiment was particularly rampant in the western United States, causing many Chinese to take the new railroad and travel east, looking for acceptance and more job opportunities. As Chicago was a railroad terminus and major industrial center, many came to Chicago, where they started to establish the city's original Chinatown, centered on South Clark Street between Van Buren and Harrison streets.
Moy is the family name that dominates Chicago's Chinatown. The three original Moy brothers moved to Chicago from San Francisco in 1878, according to John Rohsenow, who taught Mandarin Chinese and linguistics at the University of Illinois for thirty years. "That's why most of the people in this town are named Moy," says Rohsenow, who is now on the board of directors of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago. "This is a Moy town."
The Moys became Chinatown's largest and most influential family. They led the On Leong Merchants Association, one of two major Chinese merchant associations in Chicago. The other one, Hip Sing, is now headquartered at 1121 West Argyle Street in what some call Chicago's "North Chinatown." On Leong and Hip Sing are commonly described as rival Chinese merchant associations, or tongs. Both settled in Chicago's original Chinatown. When On Leong moved to the Pui Tak building in 1912, most of the Chinese merchants followed. Hip Sing stayed on South Clark Street until finally moving to Argyle in 1974, when it was displaced by the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
American Chinese Food
Nearly all of the Chinese immigrants who settled in Chicago before 1943, when the Exclusion Acts were repealed, came from the Toisan district. In fact, about 86 percent of Chinese Americans can trace their ancestry to Guangdong Province, mostly to the Toisan district (Rohsenow 2003, 322), which explains the proliferation of Cantonese restaurants throughout America in the twentieth century.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, said Rohsenow, there were a "gazillion" Cantonese restaurants in Chicago. "They were famous for their dance bands. It was all Cantonese [people] and Cantonese food." These restaurants offered Cantonese food adapted for American tastes. Orange chicken and chop suey, which literally means "leftovers" in Cantonese, are dishes created in America for Americans. If you order these dishes in China, you may get a completely different dish. Or you may just get a blank stare. Peter hears it all the time: people go to China, order a certain dish, and Chinese chefs don't even know what it is. "They call it American Chinese food," he says.
Cantonese cuisine is not traditionally spicy. Spicy Chinese food, says Peter, is "mostly from the north." Peter added a spicy-dishes section to Won Kow's menu to accommodate Americans' growing need for spicy fare. American Chinese food also reflects Americans' love for all things fried. Other than using a small amount of oil to stir-fry food, Peter claims, Chinese cooks "never use oil. Oil, in the old days, was very expensive. They steam everything. In this country," he added, "people like deep fried, they like fast food." Won Kow cooks with corn oil. "Used to be we used lard," Peter continued. "No more, because those are bad for heart. Now we use corn oil, vegetable oil ..."
Throughout its history, Won Kow has held onto its menu of both authentic Cantonese and American Chinese cuisines. About 10 percent of the menu is devoted to American Chinese food, Peter estimated one day while we chatted. After scanning the menu further, he said "maybe 20 percent." I had the feeling that if he were to comb through every one of the 200 menu items one more time, the percentage would jump a bit higher.
Popular American Chinese dishes on Won Kow's menu include the chicken almond ding and cashew chicken, both a stir-fry of Chinese vegetables, roasted almonds or cashews, and chicken. Others are gwen chow nau hor, which is made with beef, bean sprouts, onions, and flat rice noodles, or foon; the Won Kow Special, a stir-fry of beef, chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts and "other Chinese vegetables in a brown sauce"; and orange chicken.
"Orange chicken, that's a popular dish," says Peter, who always keeps one eye on the restaurant's entrance while he talks. "If you go to China, order that, probably they don't know how to do it," he continued. "But over here, the people eat it ... they like it, they order it over and over. So it's just sort of American-style Chinese." What makes it orange? I asked Peter one morning before dim sum service while he sipped tea from his usual University of Illinois mug. "Orange juice," he replied. "They deep-fry the chicken and cut it up, put the sauce on top."
The remainder of the menu reflects authentic Cantonese cuisine, which is primarily seafood based, as Guangdong, like Hong Kong, borders the South China Sea. Regulars turn to Won Kow's fried oysters, Dungeness crab, and fish kow, a pan-fried pike with stir-fried Chinese vegetables. Peking duck is also "a typical Chinese dish," Peter explains, "not an American creation." Some Chinese restaurants just serve the duck skin, fried to a delicate crisp. Won Kow serves the breast, a broth made with the bones, and the fried skin, along with pancake wrappers, scallions, and hoisin sauce. Duck is a huge seller at the restaurant, Peter exclaims. "Oh, we sell a lot! Half or the whole duck. A lot of Peking duck. Americans, too. Oh — European people love ducks! They order the duck a lot."
Won Kow's business has suffered from the competition down the street, which offers faster service and other styles of Chinese food, such as spicier Sichuan. But all of Won Kow's food is made to order, Peter says. Even the pot stickers and dumplings, typically bought frozen at other places, are made to order every day. Won Kow uses four cooks — most of them trained in Hong Kong — to prepare every single dish that comes out of its spacious, immaculate kitchen. "When you order, they start picking out all the ingredients and put it together. It's fresh," Peter boasted. It's more expensive, he says, but it's the only way Peter knows how to run a restaurant — by serving delicious food made from scratch.
Old Guard versus New Guard
Cermak Avenue cuts through the middle of Chinatown and serves as the unofficial cultural divide between old and new development. Turn south under the arch onto Wentworth, and you'll encounter Chinatown's old guard: Won Kow, the Pui Tak building, and the Chinese Christian Union Church. The iconic Amtrak lift bridge on Canal, completed in 1915, looms in the distance along the Chicago River, where Chinatown's dragon boat races launch every summer. The Canal Street Marina buzzes with activity in Chicago's precious warmer months. Turn north on Wentworth from Cermak, and you'll see the new guard: Chinatown Square, a pedestrian mall designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese that replaced the old Santa Fe railroad switchyards in 1993; the tranquil Ping Tom Memorial Park; and an ultramodern Chicago Public Library building designed by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill that opened in 2015. New-guard eateries offering bubble teas, hot pots, and other styles of Asian food compete more and more for customers that once crowded Cantonese restaurants like Won Kow.
There are myriad reasons for this seismic shift in Chinatown's tastes. Joyce Chen, a celebrated Chinese chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and author, was one of the first to bring authentic Chinese cuisine to America. "She was the one who started getting people to cook Chinese food at home," says Rohsenow. Chen came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Peking in 1949. After discovering a passion and talent for cooking authentic Chinese food for the local academic community, Chen opened her own restaurant in Cambridge in 1958. Her desire, she said, was "to open a Chinese restaurant which would make American customers happy and Chinese customers proud ... not only a place to enjoy truly authentic Chinese food, but ... a cultural exchange center" (Chen 1962, 3).
The Joyce Chen Cook Book, published in 1962, was written for those who didn't have access to an authentic Chinese restaurant. It introduced Americans to Mandarin, Shanghai, and other styles of Chinese food. It was difficult at the time to obtain Chinese ingredients. Most big cities in the United States had Chinatowns, but not all, so ingredients had to be imported from Taiwan or Hong Kong. And authentic Chinese recipes weren't available in America. The Joyce Chen Cook Book filled that gap and brought authentic, but accessible, Chinese recipes to the American home cook. Chen died in 1994; her quintessential cookbooks remain classics for chefs and home cooks throughout the world (Chen 1962, 3).
When Chen first arrived on the scene, Americans didn't cook any Chinese food at home; they had thousands of Cantonese restaurants from which to choose around the country. And Chinese restaurants in America offered only Cantonese food until about 1972, when Nixon made his historic visit to China. "When Nixon went to China, suddenly Chinese food exploded," says Rohsenow, referring to all types of Chinese food, or what are known as China's eight culinary traditions: Cantonese, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hunan, Anhui, and Shandong. "Before that, there were bad Cantonese restaurants all over the country. You know what I'm talking about? In every town. There's one on Route 16 on the road to New Hampshire near my parent's house. Cantonese restaurants ... adapted to American taste."
In 1979, the United States restored diplomatic relations with China. It became legal to import goods directly from the mainland. Rohsenow, who was teaching Mandarin at UIC at the time, recalls some turbulence as Chinese restaurateurs began importing foodstuffs from mainland China and serving it in Chicago. One particular Chinatown restaurant, he remembers, "got their windows busted out, because there were so many anticommunist people here. It took a while." Now, says Rohsenow, the waters are calm, and at least half the Chinese businesses in Chicago import their goods from China proper. "But in the beginning, there was a lot of political division between those supporting Taiwan and those willing to reconcile with the People's Republic."
Excerpted from "Local Flavor"
Copyright © 2018 Jean Iversen.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Won Kow: The Old Guard of Chinatown: Established 1928 3
2 Tufano's Vernon Park Tap: A Long Lifeline in Little Italy: Established 1930 23
3 The Gutiérrez Family: A Phoenix in Pilsen: Established 1962 43
4 The Parthenon: An Anchor in Greektown: Established 1968 67
5 Borinquen: Home of the Jibaro: Established 1987 89
6 Red Apple Buffet: A Pillar in Polonia: Established 1989 103
7 Hema's Kitchen: Doyenne of Devon: Established 1991 123
8 Noon O Kabab: King of Kedzie: Established 1997 147