Christmas is a time of family rituals — the tree, the presents, the Yule log on Channel 11. Unless, of course, you're Jewish. In that case, you probably have a different ritual: You go out for Chinese food.
But while the gentiles get to enjoy their yuletide nostalgia, nostalgic Chinese food has become scarce. The influx of restaurants serving authentic Hunan, Sichuan, and Shanghai cuisine has made it increasingly difficult to find old-fashioned Cantonese-style restaurants. A pupu platter with its flaming raised hibachi, "exotic" cocktails, Polynesian décor — that's the Chinese restaurant we all remember. Those details, of course, are utterly inauthentic and have nothing to do with China. But they have a lot to do with memories, family stories, and a comforting sense of familiarity. Isn't that what everyone — Jewish or Christian — wants around Christmastime?
Fortunately, a few old-school Cantonese outlets still remain, primarily outside Manhattan. I recently visited four such places and ordered the same thing at each one: a pu pu platter, roast pork egg foo young, chicken chop suey, and a specialty of the house. I also sampled plenty of fruity cocktails and noted which restaurants were still serving their fortune cookies loose (instead of in cellophane wrappers, a contemporary trend that's taken all the fun out of the fortune cookie ritual).
Here's what I found:
KING YUM (181-08 Union Turnpike, Fresh Meadows, Queens, 718-380-1918)
Setting: King Yum has been around since the 1940s, and it long ago perfected its shtick. When you open the door, you're greeted by a glassed-in waterfall, and things just get better from there. The bar has a thatched "roof," and the dining room is full of bamboo accents. Octogenarian owner James K. Eng, a Queens legend, diligently hobnobs his way from table to table, making sure everyone's having a good time. (Avoid Wednesdays and Fridays, when a karaoke crowd takes over.)
"Exotic" drinks: Two full pages of them, complete with illustrations and endearing descriptions like, "This is due to the ancient Jamaica rum which makes it so." The show-stopper is the boco loco, a mix of coconut milk, rum, and Cointreau, served in a coconut shell and topped, of course, with a paper parasol. At $7.95, it's a bargain.
Pupu Platter: Here we have the classic pu pu presentation — the round, segmented serving tray with a small, flaming hibachi in the center. The spareribs, foil-wrapped chicken, and shrimp toast are fine. Beef on a stick is a bit tougher than it should be, but just have another sip of your exotic drink and you won't notice. The only downer: fried shrimp, which are irredeemably greasy.
Egg Foo Young: A perfectly competent execution that gets overwhelmed by a flood of brown sauce. Ask for the sauce on the side.
Chop Suey: Not listed on the menu. Chicken chow mein seems like a good backup — until it arrives at the table. A gloppy porridge of stewed onions and a few other vegetables in an utterly characterless brown sauce, with a few shreds of tasteless chicken on top and the obligatory crunchy noodles served on the side, it is clearly not the way to go. Note to self: Next time get shrimp with lobster sauce.
Wild Card: Chicken Hawaii sounds really good on the menu ("White chicken meat, deep fried crispy brown, sautéed with Hawaiian pineapple, lychee, and a sweet and pungent flaming rum sauce"). Unfortunately, the chicken is so overcooked that the rest of the ingredients don't stand a chance.
Fortune Cookies: Cellophane-free.
RICHARD YEE'S (2617 Avenue U, Marine Park, Brooklyn, 718-891-9090)
Setting: The Yee dynasty dates back to 1952, when Richard's father, Joe, opened the original Yee's in Flatbush, which became a favorite eatery of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The restaurant moved to Marine Park in 1967, and little appears to have changed since then, including the red-jacketed waiters.
Best detail: the table adorned with autographed photos of "famous" customers, including several washed-up soap opera actors and Mayor Beame.
"Exotic" drinks: None listed, rather incredibly. The menu does have a short rundown of "Polynesian Drinks," but there are no illustrations and the roster includes a Harvey Wallbanger and brandy-spiked eggnog, which don't sound very Polynesian. Stick to beer.
Pupu Platter: The foil-wrapped chicken, flecked with just a touch of red pepper, is the best in town — irresistible. Roast pork, beef skewers, and spareribs all hold their own. Let someone else grab that doughy shrimp patty.
Egg Foo Young: Listed on the menu under "Omelets" — an appropriate designation, given the heavy egginess of this rendition. Not bad, but better suited for brunch than for dinner.
Chop Suey: A superb mix of browned chicken, sautéed onions, and a scattering of other vegetables in a blissfully light sauce. First-rate.
Wild Card: Richard Yee's Style Chow Clams (one of several Yee-eponymous dishes on the menu) turns out to be a flavorful mix of cherrystones topped with minced pork, all tossed in a black bean sauce. A bit too heavy on the MSG, but otherwise quite tasty.
Fortune Cookies: Cellophane-free.
GOLDEN GATE (3550 Johnson Ave., Bronx, 718-549-6206)
Setting: Golden Gate has been a Riverdale stand-by for nearly 50 years. The small, nondescript dining room has booths along one wall, with tables filling out the rest of the space. The unfailingly polite waiters all wear bow-ties.
"Exotic" drinks: A perfunctory half-page listing. You're better off with a martini, which is served in an absurdly large glass.
Pupu Platter: In an unprecedented move, there's no flaming hibachi, and no segmented serving tray either. Instead, Golden Gate serves a large platter piled high with excellent finger food: hacked pieces of sparerib (arguably the best in the city), wonderfully juicy shrimp toast, pork dumplings, foil-wrapped chicken, delectable skewers of roast pork, vegetables, and fruit, and a few chicken wings for good measure. Unconventional but top-notch.
Egg Foo Young: A perfectly harmonized blend of egg, vegetables, and roast pork. Better still, the sauce is served on the side, so you can add just a touch of it without overwhelming the rest of the ingredients.
Chop Suey: An agreeable mix of ultra-tender white meat, steamed snow peas, baby corn, mushrooms, onions, and other vegetables, and a mild sauce that, thankfully, isn't too gloppy. It tastes nostalgic even if you've never had chop suey before.
Wild Card: Lobster with burnt pork — a whole steamed lobster that's been hacked into pieces and tossed with a scattering of addictive little pork nubbins (they're browned, not actually burnt) — is not to be missed. And don't worry, bubulah, Chinese food is the "safe trayf," so dig in.
Fortune Cookies: Cellophane-wrapped, alas.
JADE ISLAND (2845 Richmond Ave., Staten Island, 718-761-8080)
Setting: From the outside, Jade Garden looks like just another generic Chinese joint at a strip mall. Step inside, however, and it becomes a kitschmeister's over-the-top dream. No Polynesian or Far Eastern cliché is left unmined: totem poles, tiki-head idols, a waterfall, bamboo accents, fake palm trees, shrunken heads carved from coconuts, a Buddha statue, puffer-fish lamps, you name it. As a final touch, the waitstaff is dressed in Hawaiian shirts.
"Exotic" drinks: And how — two pages of them, in full color. The prize for the most entertaining description is a tie between the zombie ("A real dirty stinker") and the love potion ("No love insurance written on this one"). Such diversions notwithstanding, the pineapple paradise — essentially a piña colada served in a hollowed-out pineapple — holds its own both as a cocktail and as a conversation piece.
Pupu Platter: Bacon-wrapped chicken is inauthentic even by pu pu standards, but it sure is tasty. So are the chicken wings, skewered beef, spareribs, and chicken wings.
Egg Foo Young: Excellent ratio of browned exterior to pillow-soft interior. Ask for the sauce on the side and you've got a textbook case of how this dish should be prepared.
Chop Suey: Bland mix of undistinguished chicken and vegetables in an insipid broth-poo. Disappointing.
Wild Card: Hawaii four "O," highly recommended by our waiter, is a mix of lobster, filet mignon, chicken breast, pork loin, and vegetables, served in a brown sauce. The beef turns out to be excellent, but the lobster is overcooked and tough, the rest of the ingredients don't quite come together, and the sauce isn't assertive enough. Too bad.
Fortune Cookies: Cellophane-free.