When you consider that chop suey peaked as a phenomenon in the 20’s, Chinese cuisine — at least of the Cantonese variety — experienced a long period of stagnation before new and improved versions came along. There were several attempts to update the formula of course. Chinese restaurant/jazz joints were popular in the 20’s and 30’s. Following World War II Chinese restaurant/tiki bars were huge, and they endured well into the 60’s. Actually I know of at least one of those that’s still around: Chef Shangri-La on 26th Street in Riverside, Illinois. My college buddies and I tossed back a few Dr. Fongs at that place back in the late 80’s I can tell you. Oh the hangovers. But the grass roof in the bar was very cool as I recall. My memory might be a little skewed.
Anyway, it was around the time of the rise of Chinese-tiki that at least some Chinese entrepreneurs were getting awfully tired of the same old thing. Maybe it was boredom, maybe it was simple embarrassment, but by the late 40’s a new breed of restaurant began to emerge. These places catered to Chinese ex-pats, diplomats and Asian-theater war veterans who knew what real Chinese food tasted like. Most of them served at least some Cantonese-style food, however the menu was supplemented by dishes borrowed from other provinces of China.
Among the first of these was the Peking Restaurant which opened in, no surprise, Washington, D.C. in 1947. Peking duck was the specialty of the house, yet the sleeper hit of the menu was a dish of pork, mushrooms, eggs and lily buds that was served wrapped in thin white flour pancakes. This dish hailed from the Shandong province in northern China and was called “moo shu”…or something.
Perhaps because this dish also provided a cross-cultural reference point (the wheat pancake) perhaps because it was served “burrito”-style thus offering diners a convenient way out of the chop stick conundrum, it was quickly adopted by the culture. By the mid-60’s moo shu pork was popping up on menus in New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Chicago. To this day it remains one of my personal favorites, which is why I’m now going to go make some. I’m hungry.