Sunday, August 30, 2009

Moon Palace

When I started going out with Helen, in my last year of college, she made me go to strange places I had not visited. Like the Moon Palace. It wasn't far at all, on Broadway between 111th and 112th Streets. It had a huge neon sign giving its name. MOON PALACE. It was a Chinese Restaurant.

Chinese. Totally foreign food to me. It wasn't meat and potatoes. It wasn't a burger and fries. It wasn't even the diner food we were getting on weeknights in the Hewitt cafeteria at Barnard. It was Chinese.

We had to eat someplace on the weekends. I think it took a few rounds of "oh come on" and the suggestion of her just going off without me, see you later. I didn't want that to happen. Every hour together counted. You know how that gets.

I didn't like weird food. This has changed. Well all right, I still have my limits. But at that time, if I didn't already like it, I was practically in fear of eating it. It was that bad. Anyway, see what love does to you. I went there with her. Over and over.

The first time in, I actually had the Broiled Hamburger Steak off the American Dishes section of the menu. It came with vegetables, and had a taste I could not identify. Not bad, but different from what I would expect of a hamburger. I probably whined about it. I don't know how people put up with me.

Anyway I won't whine to you here, OK? Within just a few years, I had about a dozen favorites. I eased into them by us ordering one dish I knew I liked plus one other that Helen picked. If I liked the other one, it could be the one I liked next time.


As you can see, I have a Moon Palace menu. It's on loan from the Seventh Floor Watson Collection. Someone at work took one away long ago, and it's one of the curios we have hanging on the wall.

What could we get?

Sometimes we got the Cantonese Family Dinner for Two. This involved something I know from old books and movies, but which I have never actually seen on any other menu. For the two main dishes, we chose one from column A and one from column B! Actually, they were called groups, but they were in two columns.

The reason was that the dishes in Group A were more expensive. If you were willing to have the less meaty things in Group B you got a price break.

I remember the Won Ton Soup (not bad) and the Egg Roll (never a favorite but I ate it). The ice cream dessert was a scoop of good ice cream with the fortune cookie stuck in the top.

Sometimes we skipped the Family Dinner option and explored the two hundred five numbered choices on the inner pages. The menu calls the dishes Peking and Shanghai style. It had none of the dishes inspired by Hunan and Szechuan food that would become popular in American Chinese restaurants. But there were good things that I haven't been able to find anywhere else.

See that Wine Chicken there. It was chopped pieces of chicken, bones in, looking very white, and marinated in spirits. It's also known as drunk chicken. Notice it's a cold dish. Later I would have wine chicken served hot with vegetables, which is fine but a whole different experience.

Double Fried Pork with Hot Sauce. It's actually twice cooked, being a roast pork that is then further sauteed in a wok with some vegetables. The Moon Palace version had an especially good roast pork. It was the Chinese kind that slices into two-inch ovals with red rims, and it was pleasingly dry, in contrast to the sauce it was in.

Helen likes Moo Sou Pork (usually spelled Moo Shu nowadays). I was never a big fan of that one but we had it sometimes.

Look at those two Chinese Sausage dishes. I don't think we ever had them but I would get one now and see what it is.

I think I joked to Helen repeatedly about Pork with Fish Flavor. If you want fish flavor, why not have fish? And I would point out that there was no Fish with Pork Flavor available.

I don't remember having any of these, but they look great, except maybe the Gingko Nuts with Chicken. I've been told that the nut does not smell anything like the gingko fruit, which smells like vomit, but even so.

Paper Wrapped Chicken sounds interesting. Chicken with Pork in 2 Styles sounds like each meat is cooked the same two ways, and I wonder what they were.

Steak Kow should really be Steak Kew, but I like it as Kow. Chinese menus have to be typeset by people who can read the Chinese characters, and those people are sometimes a little weak on English. This menu is pretty good though. There's no Chicken with Finger, or Beef with Black Leper.

I love the English typeface they used. It has a Deco look.

Some of the good ones are hard to figure from the menu. See Veg w Vermicelli. Any idea what you get? On this menu, the word vegetable referred to one specific vegetable, bok choy, a green leafy vegetable from China. And the word vermicelli meant a thin cellophane rice noodle. These were cooked together in a clear sauce. It was a really pleasing dish with a very light flavor. Helen and I liked having it alongside one of the meaty dishes.

Here's another good one hiding under a simple name. Noodle with Aromatic Beef (In Soup). So, just Beef Noodle Soup? I chose to order this myself even though neither of us had ever had it. It was amazing.

The stock was a beef broth flavored with star anise, the flavoring used for licorice candy. The bowl was generously filled with egg noodles shaped like spaghetti. Placed on top were medallion slices of a Chinese beef, still a little cool, because they were not cooked in the soup. As a result the beef was not soft and overcooked, and the contrast in temperature and in texture was wonderful. The beef was tender, but cooked brown all the way through, slow cooked maybe, and it was a quality cut, not the gristly stuff you sometimes get in Chinese restaurants. This immediately became my favorite Moon Palace dish. And I've never seen it anywhere since.

Half of the last page was devoted to some things Helen and I could not read. I've heard of a tradition in American Chinese restaurants that certain dishes are meant only for Chinese (or Chinese American) customers. That's probably what we've got here. But I think I see a lot of numerals here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10. And two of the sections seem to be identical. I don't know how this describes menu items. There are perhaps things I am not meant to know.


Words of wisdom from Sir John Timbs's 1856 opus, Things Not Generally Known, as to the chances of the sun being inhabited:

Sir John Herschel concludes that the sun is a planet abundantly stored with inhabitants ; his inference being drawn from the following arguments :

"On the tops of mountains of a sufficient height, at an altitude where clouds can very seldom reach to shelter them from the direct rays of the sun, we always find regions of ice and snow. Now, if the solar rays themselves conveyed all the heat we find on this globe, it ought to be hottest where least interrupted. Again, our aeronauts all confirm the coldness of the upper regions of the atmosphere."

That makes sense, right? This is John Herschel, a well respected scientist important in the development of astronomy, meteorology, and photography, not some nut. I mention this to show what can happen even to smart people. Now I will proceed.

Age of the Moon Palace.

The Palace was huge by Manhattan standards. It looked old and worn, in a comfortable way that appealed to me. I think there were booths along the side walls and tables in the middle. Helen and I assumed it had been there for decades.

No. The New York Times, January 26, 1991, in describing the last day of operation, says that the Moon Palace had been open for 26 years, which makes it 1964 or 1965. It was less than ten years old when we started eating there— which seems impossible to me, from the way it looked. The writer does call it "a cavernous relic of an earlier culinary age", but that's twenty years down the road.

The solution is found on a Picaso photo album that by chance shows a place called New Asia Chop Suey at the same location. The caption says explicitly that the restaurant "became the Moon Palace". So I think what happened is that the Moon Palace took over an existing Chinese restaurant and kept most of the furniture and decor. That's why it looked so old to us.

Authenticity of the Moon Palace.

When I started thinking about this piece, I was going to say what an old fashioned Chinese restaurant the Moon Palace was. The Column A and Column B thing was stuck in my mind. They weren't modern ; they weren't with the trends ; it was an older generation's idea of how to present Chinese food to Americans. Additionally the staff had that Chinese accent, which some people cruelly mock for comic effect, in which they add "ee" to the ends of some words. I've known plenty of Chinese Americans and even people from China, and none of them ever do that. I wonder where it comes from.

The Moon Palace was reviewed by Craig Claiborne in the New York Times number for April 21, 1967, when it was about two years old. He says:

At its best, the food at the Moon Palace ranks with the best to be had at any Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. A dish of shredded chicken with abalone and another of pork shreds with soft bean curd were enjoyed recently with uncommon relish, and they will long be remembered. Both the boiled and fried dumplings are first-rate.

The problem here, as it is in many Chinese restaurants, is to persuade the management that you have an authentic appetite for food leagues removed from chow mein and chop suey. This is a large, unpretentious restaurant near Columbia University, and it seems vastly popular with the students thereof.

That's pretty good! You don't see the word thereof used enough these days. But we do need to take care with the word relish when writing about food.

Fifteen years later, a Times reporter wrote about a dinner at the Palace:

It began with cold appetizers such as hot and sour cabbage and aromatic duck, washed down with Moatai, a fiery 106-proof Chinese rice brandy. Shaoxing, hot rice wine, was served with the main courses, which included quail's eggs in a nest of greens, pork chops rolled in mashed cooked rice and steamed, and shrimp with sizzling rice. A spectacular soup was served halfway through the meal— as it is in China— made with giant carp's heads and laced with large flat transparent noodles. [...] The soup was followed by crispy duck with scallions, fried squirrel fish, and chicken cooked with squid in a rich black bean sauce.

That's not what Helen and I ordered. And I don't see carp's head soup on the menu, at least not in English.

Why the Moon Palace closed.

The story we got from somebody was that the Moon Palace had opened shortly after World War II, and that forty-odd years later, the owners and staff had grown old together and all retired at the same time. That's a nice story.

The Times article from 1991 (vide infra) says however,

The Moon Palace closed for the usual reasons: volume fell off, the rent escalated, and prices couldn't go too high and still be competitive. Dinner for two, with appetizers, main courses and drinks, was less than $30. After two years of litigation with the landlord over a rent increase, the restaurant decided to close.

That's just sad. However the article does mention "the employees, many of whom worked at the Moon Palace for decades", adding that the cook, Larry Pan, had worked all 26 years.

That price, by the way, is three times what my menu says.

Classified ad from the Times, 1971.

The Moon Palace lives in our hearts.

A few years out of college, Helen made me eat another strange food. Pizza. I should tell you that one sometime. We were away on a trip and I was ready to try something exotic. Wow. Some people get their thrills doing whitewater rafting or parachute jumping. But see what I do!

Next time: Twin Towers.


  1. Ah, Moon Palace. I used to go there often, not just with the Watson crowd, but even before then. Some nights I would make a meal out of a takeout order of fried dumplings and chicken fried rice.

    I recall the waiter at Moon Palace refused to write down our orders, even when there were eight of us sitting at a round table. He would invariably get confused and come back to the table multiple times to clarify the order. :-)

    I hope your pizza story is about V&T! :-)

  2. I relocated from Detroit to NYC in 1968, and the New Moon was a place recommended to me by a friend who had attended Columbia. I had a regular habit for a stretch going there every Saturday by myself and chowing down on steamed dumplings and a stir fried vegetable. Remembering the waiters in their gray service jackets. Old School and great.

  3. I was born and raised on W.114st in the 60's. It was always a thrill for me when my parents took me to Moon Palace which wasn't often, usually for a special occasion. Mom's cooked every night back in those days. I always remember the waiters in red jackets, and my brother ordering Lobster Cantonese style,and me beef and broccoli. I remember the dishes would come out in stainless steel dishes with covers, and grabbing a mint on the way out. Thanks for posting this great post. Great Memories.