The Yangtze restaurant, viewed from the context of Tom Peterson’s flat head
Before I came to California’s Inland Empire, I attended college in Portland, Oregon. Now many people think of Portland and think of rain, or roses, or a semi-trendy downtown.
Most people DON’T think of Southeast 82nd Street.
During the time that I was in Portland, Southeast 82nd Street was known for many things. One of those things was its Saturday night lifestyle. Young people with cars would go to 82nd Street and park with their lights on…staring at each other, I guess. Another thing was Tom Peterson, who at the time had two stores, right next to each other at Southeast 82nd Street and Foster, advertised with a cartoon image of Peterson’s military-cropped head – with arrows pointing at the head.
Another thing was Southeast 82nd Street’s Chinese-American restaurants. 82nd Street was not exactly a dining Mecca, but you could certainly dine there. And your culinary choices included Chinese-American restaurants.
What do my early 1980s experiences in Portland, Oregon have to do with the closure of a restaurant in Ontario, California in 2015?
My Chinese-American restaurants in Portland, as well as the Yangtze Restaurant in Ontario, were part of a larger movement known as American Chinese cuisine. As Adam Lapetina notes, this is American Chinese, not Chinese.
[M]ost of what we eat today from paper takeout boxes would confuse the living hell out of a person in Beijing, and not just because they can’t see it clearly through the smog.
America’s got a type of Chinese food all its own, and it’s super different from what they’ve got across the pond.
Lapetina then proceeds to list ten facts about American Chinese food. Here are a couple of them:
It wasn’t until after World War II that it started to become more mainstream. Chinese chefs would often have two menus: one for Chinese people and one for Americans… but as its popularity grew, the American-tailored menu came to dominate….
The reason the Americanized menu was so popular? It used super-sweet, syrupy sauces as opposed to traditional ones, mostly due to the cheap, widespread availability of canned fruits like pineapple and cherries….
Which brings us to Ontario and its downtown Yangtze restaurant, opened in 1961 and scheduled to close on March 31, 2015. In his article about the closure of the restaurant, David Allen notes that the restaurant is from another era:
Yangtze remained proudly frozen in time, its avocado-green vinyl booths and menu items like chop suey and egg foo yong reflecting an earlier era.
Latecomers like myself didn’t get it.
I can speak to this from personal experience. I had never been to Yangtze Restaurant until a few months ago. I went there recently with some people who have lived in Ontario since the 1960s, and who last visited the Yangtze a long, long time ago. None of us was enthused with the experience; our tastes had changed because of exposure to more modern forms of Chinese food.
Actually, more modern forms of AMERICAN Chinese food. While we may say that Yangtze and other Chinese-American restaurants consciously pandered to American tastes, the truth is that all restaurants pander to local tastes to some extent. While looking for previous posts of mine about Portland’s Tom Peterson, I ran across a 2008 post in my mrontemp blog that also discussed the Chinese-American restaurants on Southeast 82nd Street. And that 2008 post includes a quote from a David Allen blog post:
So there’s a lot to be said in China Gate’s favor.
But in looking over the 100-plus-item menu, it must be said that there’s a 1980s feel to it, and maybe even older. Have you noticed they still serve not only egg foo yung, but chop suey? How very Yangtze of them. And China Gate may be the valley’s most authentic Chinese restaurant.
And even your most authentic Chinese restaurant makes some slight changes in its menu to accommodate the foreigners who patronize it.
So will the post-World War II Chinese-American cuisine eventually die away? Or will it become historically significant, with preservationists insisting on maintaining the lost art of ordering by number?