The Chinese diner

Today’s Zippy takes us to a bit of now-vanished Camden NJ, the Elgin Diner Restaurant, and, next to it, a fantasy Chinese diner, an amalgam of two items of demotic culinary Americana: the classic diner (an Art Deco railcar where people meet to eat plain, familiar food); and the little Chinese (that is, American-Cantonese) restaurant:

(#1)

This will take us on the road to Ardmore PA, Wheeling WV, and Idaho Falls ID. For the trip, choose a diner classic — tuna melt, patty melt, club sandwich, meatloaf, macncheese — from column A; and a Chinese-restaurant classic — hot and sour soup, chow mein, garlic eggplant, General Tso’s chicken, sweet and sour pork — from column B. And then wok this way.

The Elgin Diner Restaurant. Briefly, from the Roadside Architecture site on New Jersey diners, about the Elgin Diner in Camden NJ:

(#2)

The Elgin Diner was a Kullman from 1958. It closed … in 2007. The diner reopened in 2010…. By 2012, the diner had closed again. In 2014, it was demolished. It will be replaced with a Family Dollar store.

More detail, from the NJ Pen site, “Elgin Diner Teardown Begins: The landmark Camden eatery will be replaced by a Family Dollar” by Matt Skoufalos on 9/4/14:

(#3)

Demolition began this week on the Elgin Diner in Camden City.

… To Americana enthusiasts like Retro Roadmap, which identifies the Elgin as “a wonderfully preserved 1958 Kullman diner named after a watch,” the vintage look of the Elgin was the larger part of its charm.

Kullman was a Newark, NJ-based railroad car company that manufactured prefabricated “modular construction” items, and operated from 1927 to 2007.

Much of its trademark stainless steel was heaped in piles that were being swept by a backhoe Thursday morning, as workers disassembled other pieces by hand.

The diner and the Chinese restaurant. Two quite different items of culture, each involving a structure of a characteristic design, with a characteristic ambience and clientele, and with a characteristic menu. Both serve food, in a place that is typically of modest size, but otherwise they diverge wildly. So it’s absurd of Zippy to expect Chinese food  in a diner, just as it would be for him to expect diner food (a burger and a shake, say, with coffee, and for dessert, a slice of coconut cream pie) in a Chinese restaurant.

But of course, wherever there are separate architectural and design styles and also separate cuisines, there will, eventually, almost surely be cultural syncretisms, in both domains — some no doubt ill-conceived, but others with hybrid vigor. As it turns out, Chinese diners aren’t very common, and their syncretisms seem to be quite superficial, mostly packaging Chinese food in a diner-like space. (Similarly for Japanese diners and Korean diners.)

The Chung Sing Diner in Ardmore PA. One approach: take a classic diner, gut the inside, and install a Chinese restaurant there. That gives you a standard Chinese restaurant with a diner facade. From the RetroRoadmap site, “Vintage Diner Serving Chinese Food? Yep! Chung Sing Ardmore PA” by Mod Betty on 4/14/11:

(#4)

It’s actually a vintage Fodero diner, once called Dean’s Diner and built in 1952 (thanks Larry at Diner Hotline for the info.)

And here’s what the inside looks like today.

(#5)

Yes the original booths, counter and stools are long gone, but you can still see the stainless steel menu frames above where the counter would be, the swinging stainless steel doors and curved roof.

(Ardmore is between Wynnewood and Haverford (and then Bryn Mawr) on the Main Line out of Philadelphia.)

This place is a diner in the same sense that the French Laundry — the facade of a decades-gone business lovingly preserved, now housing a series of small tech companies — just down the street from me is a French laundry. Chung Sing is a little Chinese restaurant — apparently a good one — in dinerface.

At least it’s still in business, unlike the Elgin Cafe or my next restaurant:

The Sesame Cafe (Korean-American) in Wheeling WV.  Listed on dining sites as permanently closed. Mostly what’s available are photos like this one —


(#6) Flickr photo by NC Cigany

An urban non-railcar diner in a small corner location. Others are in storefronts. Many are called cafes rather than diners, but the food is diner fare. Looks like this one actually mixed Korean and American food, but I haven’t found any record of the menu. (Note the take-out window.)

Happy Chinese Food. The second component of the Zippy strip. The one in the strip is blank-faced, generic (and certainly not next-door to the Elgin Diner before its demise). It represents all the many auspiciously named Happy X Chinese restaurants (siblings of the many Lucky X Chinese restaurants). In this case, the minimally named such, just Happy on its own. In addition, there’s

Happy Dragon, Happy Family, Happy Garden, Happy China, Happy House, Happy Wok, Happy Panda, Happy Uncle, Happy Chef, Happy Kitchen, …

One actual minimal instance, the Happy Chinese Restaurant in Idaho Falls ID, with this logo:

(#6)

The relevant character is the middle one:


(#7) lè (le-4) ‘happy, happiness, fun’

(I don’t actually know Chinese characters, but I can google up a storm. I can also tell you that this is not the only ‘happy’ character; of course there’s not going to be just one.)

The full menu is available here; it has pretty much everything, assembled from all parts of China and from Chinese cuisines overseas:

egg rolls, pot stickers, hot and sour soup, Sichuan X, mu shu X, kung pao X, X chop suey, X chow mein, X fried rice, General Tso’s chicken, …

I seem not to have posted about General Tso — spelled in Latin letters in many, many ways — but here’s the short version, from Wikipedia:

(#8)

General Tso’s chicken … is a sweet deep-fried chicken dish that is served in North American Chinese restaurants… The dish is named after Zuo Zongtang (also romanized Tso Tsung-t’ang), a Qing dynasty statesman and military leader, although there is no recorded connection to him nor is the dish known in Hunan, Zuo’s home province.

There seems to be massive dispute about who created the standard version that we know today, and where, and when.

6 Responses to “The Chinese diner”

  1. John Baker Says:

    I don’t know if you’ve talked about it before, but I note that Zippy also mentions column A and column B. People still say “one from column A and two from column B,” a reference to how Chinese restaurant menus used to present their choices. (And maybe still? I haven’t seen it since the early 1980s.) Barry Popik has a page on this,
    https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/one_from_column_a_one_from_column_b_chinese_menu_ordering.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’ve checked with Dan Jurafsky (noted language of food writer, scholar of restaurant menus, and Chinese food enthusiast), who reports that he’s done no research on the column A / column B thing but thinks it would be a great topic to investigate.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    I mention the column A / column B thing in passing early in this posting, but I don’t think I’ve posted about the menu convention specifically. Thanks for the link to Barry’s page.

  3. Sim Aberson Says:

    It’s sad that the diner was demolished. There seems to be a market for old diner cars, moving them to new, usually urban, locations. One famous diner here in the Miami area is the Gourmet Diner, which was really an excellent French restaurant in a diner car, with servers dressed like diner waitstaff.
    Hannah's Gourmet Diner (est. 1983), 13951 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami, FL, USA

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Sad indeed. It looks like the problem with the Elgin was mostly its location, but that could have been solved by moving it to a better location. Classic diners were, after all, *designed* to be easily movable (originally, from the factory).

  4. [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes a look at American diner culture, including American Chinese […]

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