This column-tour through the five buildings that once housed my family’s Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurants begins outside in China Alley. We stand in front of the Tea Room’s Alley entrance and look across the Alley. Starting from the east, look at the second story of the third building, where pigeons are roosting in the two windowsills. This was home to Great-grandfather’s noodle house that he named “Mee Jan Low,” which translates to beautiful and precious restaurant.
Great-grandfather originally sold noodles out of the basement of his home, located on 64 Visalia Street. His reputation as a cook spread among the local Chinese community, leading him to open “Mee Jan Low” in China Alley in 1883. He leased the second story space from Young Chow, who was one of the first Chinese businesspeople to own property in China Alley and the surrounding area before the turn of the 20th century. In the early days, Great-grandfather catered mostly to Chinese customers, serving up dishes reminiscent of his homeland. Let’s go inside.
The Alley stairway leading to the noodle house has been blocked off, so lets go behind the building and enter through the rear. It’ll be a bit of a maze, but I can lead you there with my eyes closed. We enter through the back doorway between the Imperial Dynasty and Chinese Pagoda restaurants. We turn right and walk about ten feet to a cement stairway on our left. There are ten steps to the landing leading to the laundry room, where we make an immediate right and take another fourteen steps, leading up to the pantry of the upstairs Chinese Pagoda banquet room, The Celestial Room. We’ll take a peek at that room on another tour, but for now let’s unlock the four locks on the door inside the pantry. We walk through the doorway and step down six wooden steps into the mechanical area above the building’s kitchens. The walkway is narrow, so we’ll take it slow. We’ve reached the rear of the Mee Jan Low. We take the six steps up the creaky wooden stairway and open the door.
Everything is old and dusty. There are a few pigeon carcasses on the floor. We walk into the dining room. There are numerous things to look at in here, but today we will focus on the east wall. There are several enclosed booths. Mee Jan Low was a meeting place for many of the Chinese laborers, a comfortable place where they could buy noodles for five cents a bowl and sit and chat away the hours at one of the eight tables filling the small eatery.
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As I stand in quiet stillness in front of the booths, in my mind freed from the constraints of time, I hear jovial laughter, the click-clack of chopsticks, and stools scraping the floor. I smell the brothy noodles, the fragrant oolong tea, and the heady scents of aromatic spices. I love coming to this room. “This” is where we started, where Great-grandfather began his dynasty in China Alley
I take one last deep breath, turn back and we return to the Tea Room and step inside. I know some of you immediately see what Steve and I brought here from the noodle house. The second booth along the east wall once belonged to the Mee Jan Low. A part of where we started stands where we are today. I am grateful.
Wood, rife with memory, once there, now here. This week I’m sharing a beef and fresh beech mushroom stir-fry. Beech mushrooms are gilled mushrooms native to East Asia. The mushrooms grow on wood, particularly on beech trees, hence their common name: beech mushrooms. They are small and thin and can be found in most Asian grocery stores. Feel free to swap them out with cremini, fresh shiitake, or white button mushrooms.