Chop Suey Resorts
Chinese Dish Now Served in Many Parts of the City
Nov 15, 1903, The New York Times
An unfortunate choice of locality was mainly responsible for the fact that six guileless young strangers from Staten Island last week, who went into a chop suey "joint" and ordered steak and onions landed in a police station. They simply were not aware of the fact that since the chop suey reserve broke loose from Chinatown, about one year ago, and joined in the general up-town movement, they might have gone into a Chinese restaurant right in the heart of the large late supper houses of Long Acre Square and ordered from a bill of fare that mentions Chinese delicacies on one side of the bill of fare and American dishes on the other. It would have been possible for them, under these circumstances, to order what they wanted without falling into the hands of the police for assaulting a waiter, as they did in a chop suey establishment lower down town.
It was an ambitious young Chinaman who for some reason or other is know among Chinatown habitués as "Boston" (for he has never been anywhere near the Hub, and knows nothing about it, he says) who led the chop suey movement out of Doyers Street. He moved into Third Avenue, near Rivington Street, and did so well that other chop suey merchants followed, and finally crowded him into Seventh Avenue, near Thirty-fourth Street. The necessity for tearing down whole blocks of houses to make room for the new Pennsylvania railroad terminal in that locality has temporarily put "Boston" out of business. His compatriots had already pushed past him to the Long Acre district. One of them had even gone to Harlem. But he was simply following the general assumption that, no matter what is to be found anywhere else on Manhattan Island, Harlem must have "one of its own." It is a far cry from the Harlem chop suey establishment to the one in Long Acre, which claims the most exclusive patronage of the town.
There, under the light of multi-colored lanterns, and amid the silk and bamboo decorations that are quite luxurious from an Oriental point of view, chop suey is served to the midnight supper crowd. This resort, like a great many others of its kind that thrive within ten blocks of it toward any point of the compass, is not open in the daytime. Only the cheaper sort of places, much further down town, are open before nightfall, and they do business very much in the style of American restaurants that are compelled to serve early breakfasts. Sunlight and the chop suey consumer are as far apart as the poles. It is the men and women who like to eat after everybody else is abed that pour shekels into the coffers of the man who knows how to make chop suey.
As "Boston" explained the matter to a report for The New York Times, it was necessary to move chop suey quarters up town when slumming ceased to be popular with New Yorkers. It is only strangers who go to Chinatown now for the mere curiosity of the thing, and they have not acquired the chop suey habit. As a matter of fact, most of them think the taste of it is abominable.
But in New York, as in San Francisco and other cities which have large Chinese colonies, a large number of persons have learned to like chop suey. Once or twice a week, or even oftener, they have a "hankering" for it. But they dislike to come all the way to Chinatown after theatre hours to get it. This was suggested to "Boston," he says, by a man well known in the Broadway café set, who used to bring well-dressed night parties into Chinatown frequently to have a chop suey treat. In fact, the man guaranteed the success of the undertaking.
The result has been the establishment, within a few months, of one hundred or more chop suey places between Forty-fifth Street and Fourteenth Street, and from the Bowery to Eighth Avenue. A large number of these are in the Tenderloin. Many persons who have seen this new crop of chop suey establishments have jumped to the conclusion that opium smoking and kindred vices usually associated with Chinamen have been going on there with the tacit consent of the police.
"Nothing of the kind," said Police Capt. Burfriend, when the reporter asked him about it. "I know from experience that these chop suey 'joints,' as they are called are among the most orderly places in New York. I have investigated personally many that are within my jurisdiction, and I know from officers who have made the roundes again and again that they must be judged strictly as other restaurants are - on their merits. There are many in which a man might take his wife or daughter without the slightest fear, provided she liked chop suey and did not object to being waited upon by Chinese servants. To a large proportion of New Yorkers this is in itself an object. But people from the Pacific Coast, where other domestic servants are hard to obtain, do not mind it in the least. On the contrary, I am informed, they like the cooking of the Chinamen just as Southerners preferred their old 'mammy' cooks. I mention this fact because a large proportion of the persons who patronize these chop suey restaurants are visitors from the West and not residents of this city, who get a late supper at home or who go to familiar chop suey houses they knew long ago, and which it delights them to revisit once or twice a year.
I once asked a chop suey man why he did not confine himself strictly to Chinese dishes and not have a bill of fare mixed with such commonplace things as ham and eggs and mutton chops with French fried potatoes. He told me that it was necessary for him to do this in order to satisfy his customers. A man might wish to treat his wife or a friend to a dish of chop suey after a theatre, but could not eat the stuff himself. He must either go hungry or be satisfied with tea and rice. Consequently he lets his wife have her chop suey, while he orders, from the American side of the bill, broiled ham or broiled chicken, according to how much money he wishes to spend. It is a fact, also, that as many persons go to chop suey houses for a broiled chicken with rice cooked as only the Chinese can cook it, and for tea brewed as only they can brew it, as go for chop suey.
"But, I repeat, these suey establishments are as orderly as any of the other restaurants that run parallel to it. In fact, they are far more orderly than some I could name whose proprietors have not the fear of the law that the average Chinaman has. If a row occurs in a Chinaman's restaurant he will run for a policeman and not try to protect his patrons by keeping him out. If the patron who created the disturbance goes to the same place again he will not be served if the Chinaman sees him first. Most of these chop suey places have no liquor licenses. Liquor cannot be obtained in them under any circumstances - not even their own rice wine and other concoctions that are supposed to be an indispensable feature of a visit to Chinatown. Tea is the only beverage served. This itself is a great feature in keeping order. As to opium or other dope - that is absurd. Cigarettes are smoked, as they are in other restaurants; and smoked by women as well as men, as they are in some other restaurants. But that is the fault of the patrons, and not of the Chinamen.
"In my precinct, as in others, there are some chop suey places patronized exclusively by negroes. In fact they have developed an extreme fondness for chop suey since places were opened up town. Negroes were afraid to go to Chinatown, for some reasons or other. But they like the chop suey well enough, possibly because of the large proportion of chicken in it."
Persons who ought to know from experience say that a chop suey supper, or dinner, is as cheap and substantial a meal as anything else could be. In the better class places a heaping dish of suey, with a cup of tea and a bowl of rice cost 25 cents with mushrooms and 35 or 40 cents with them. But from the gourmet's point of view, the mushrooms (canned after a Chinese fashion) are supposed to be the principal feature of the dish - the cranberry sauce to the turkey.
No bread is served unless ordered. The rice is supposed to be a substitute for it. The chopped veal and chicken, which are believed to form the principal ingredients of chop suey, are served on a heaping platter, quite as much as any hungry man could eat. Beside it is a small dish of black sauce, which is to give relish to the feast and aid digestion. In the better class restaurants, this simple meal of chop suey costs anywhere from 40 to 60 cents. Of course, if a customer cares to go in for delicacies that go with a Chinese meal it must be paid for in proportion, as other delicacies are. But 35 cents will keep a man from going hungry for a great many hours if he likes chop suey.
A Chinese waiter does not talk. It is quite indifferent to him whether or not he gets a tip. No matter if he is tipped nothing will induce him to serve a customer out of his turn. He is indifferent to praise or blame. So is the cook. He knows his chop suey is all right if the customer doesn't, and so long as he gets his money for it he does not care. In the cheaper chop suey places customers are warned by signs on the wall to look after their own coats and umbrellas. The tables are of polished wood and bare of condiments. The Chinaman has no use for the man who uses salt and pepper after his food is prepared for him. As a general thing, the wall paper is gaudy. The ceilings are hung with lanterns and paper parasols. The cashier's desk is near the door, and the customer cannot tell whether his check is correct or not until he gets his change. A Chinese laundry check isn't in it compared with a restaurant check.
The garments worn by the waiters and others about the place are scanty but clean. The culinary arrangements are absolutely cut off from view. The cooks and kitchen men are not exposed to view as they are in many American restaurants that serve food at comparatively the same prices. The Chinaman goes to the kitchen for his food, instead of bawling the order through an open window. Even in the best resorts there are no cloths on the tables. No effort is made at table decoration. The crockery is a little finer, silver is used instead of pewter or plate, the floors are carpeted, and the service is a little better. When the Chinaman is ready to go home he shuts up shop. No amount of persuasion will induce him to admit another customer after he has concluded he doesn't want to do any more business.
Innumerable attempts have been made to get Chinamen to tell what chop suey is made of. Chinese cooks have been hired by families, but they never seemed to be able to impart the secret of the dish to others. Chop suey receipts have been published in books and periodicals. When these have been interpreted to Chinese cooks they smiled knowingly.
The fact is that no two cooks make it exactly alike. Everything seemed to depend on the mushrooms and the mysterious black or brown sauce that is poured over the stew. Chop suey enthusiasts declare that to get the dish in perfection it is still necessary to go to the stuffy little places in Chinatown, where less attention is paid to appearances than is required in the newer resorts uptown. Furthermore it is cheaper in Chinatown. A heaping dish of chop suey is served for 15 cents.
A doctor who has been one of the New York late supper crowd for years, and who varies his chop suey rounds with other restaurants and chop houses, said to the reporter:
"A dish of chop suey is as digestible again as a broiled lobster or a welsh rabbit. One soon gets used to the appearance of chop suey if his stomach is a little qualmish, and if he once begins to like it he will go to a chop suey house oftener than to any other kind of a chop house. I know men that think a dish of chop suey the finest thing in the world if they have been taking a little more beer than they should, and want to feel all right in the morning. That sauce they put on it is a powerful steadier, whatever it may be. A man who likes the dish seldom gets through one portion of chop suey after a night out without feeling like a second one. Then he sleeps like a top.
"And speaking of late suppers, the Chinese custom of serving tea with the go-to-bed meal is a splendid one. No man who wants to keep well should take beer or ale with a welsh rabbit if he can help it and if he must have it he should take it on draught, and not bottled. Men who get in the habit of taking a cup of black coffee or a cup of tea with their nightcap meal seldom take anything else."
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