Dec. 25, 2013. While other families honey-glaze ham and decorate cookies, mine huddles for warmth outside Bill & Harry's Chinese Cuisine on Route 10 in New Jersey. The wait is an hour long. To pass the time, we discuss Wolf of Wall Street, which we just saw, debate the menu ("General Tso's or Kung Pao?"), and argue why we didn't make a reservation. The same thing happens every year.
Jewish Christmas is not a calendar holiday, but where I'm from—a Garden State suburb half-an-hour due west of the Big Apple—it's celebrated with as much merriment as the real deal.
Here's the tradition:
On Jewish Christmas Eve, wish for no snow. No one wants a white Jewish Christmas. On Jewish Christmas morning, exchange zero presents, then go to the movies. Pre-buy tickets and strategize show times so you can see at least two films back-to-back. Popcorn, chocolate-covered raisins and oversized sodas are sacred. As soon as the credits roll, head to your favorite Chinese restaurant. Make a reservation, if you can, though takeout is fine.
I should mention, my hometown's demographics are a bit skewed. In the public school system, seventh grade is colloquially called "Bar/Bat Mitzvah Year" (the Jewish coming-of-age celebration). New Jersey, according to 2010 data, has a 5.6 percent Jewish population—the second highest in the country, next to New York with 8.4. North Carolina, on the other hand, has 0.3 percent. Oy vey.
I moved to Raleigh in June and, within weeks, missed bagels and lox (no offense to biscuits and fried chicken). But it wasn't until the fall that I realized I hadn't found my Chinese place for the holiday.
Serious research ensued.
I began by polling locals—many of whom responded with, "You mean, like, authentic Chinese?"
I shook my head. Jews celebrating Christmas by smuggling sesame noodles into the 6 p.m. showing of Mockingjay aren't looking for authentic anything. In many ways, that's the whole point. Jewish Christmas means celebrating not-celebrating—the inauthentic, the absence of mainstream tradition.
This does, however, complicate the search. The "authentic" choices—think Gourmet Kingdom in Carrboro or Captain J's in Raleigh—are critically acclaimed, with in-depth reviews and local awards.
The "inauthentic" options—those greasy American-Chinese dives we keep on speed dial for midnight cravings—hide in a labyrinth of informal internet reviews: Yelp, Urban Spoon, and the like. There, the line between a good and bad restaurant is thinner than a lo mein noodle.
The spots where I could find my Jewish Christmas feast—General Tso's, pork fried rice, and an egg roll—are limitless. But what about a place where the General Tso's is conservatively breaded and genuinely spicy? And the pork fried rice is full of spareribs, freckled with vegetables, speckled with egg? And the egg roll is good enough to fight your brother for?
American-Chinese is a guilty pleasure novel. You wouldn't bring it up at your book club, but it's too good to put down. It hasn't won any awards, but everyone's reading it.
Before I could sample options in the Triangle, though, another concern arose: Will southern American-Chinese restaurants even be open?
Using personal recommendations and online research, I developed a list of 14 restaurants to contact. Of the finalists, only one (David's Dumpling and Noodle Bar in Raleigh) will be closed for the holiday. A merry Jewish Christmas to (y')all!
To most restaurants, the question seemed strange. "You mean Thanksgiving?" asked one. "Uh—give me a minute," mumbled another. It wasn't until I called Fu Kee Express that I heard some Jewish Christmas spirit.
"Christmas—every year—we're open," he said. "Very busy."
"Great!" I said.
"You're from New Jersey, right?"
Caller ID, I wondered, or mind reader? Either way, I was curious enough to place an order.
That night, I ventured to three Chinese restaurants and picked-up the same order from each. I selected the spots—Fu Kee Express, Beansprout, and Super Wok—based on their reputations, as well as their proximity to my home. (If you aren't similarly located, see box for other suggestions.)
At Fu Kee Express, the man I spoke with earlier elaborated on holiday business: "If you're going to do a big order, call early. People do 50, 60, 70, 100 dollar orders."
They sound like my kind of people, but the food, unfortunately, didn't measure up. The fried rice was egg yolk-yellow—lovely in texture, but off the mark in flavor. Beansprout's was well-seasoned with soy, but lacking mix-ins. And Super Wok's was just right.
The rest of the meal followed this Goldilocks pattern.
In the end, Beansprout confirmed why people confuse American-Chinese with "bad Chinese": too much dough and cornstarch where there should be meat, too much MSG where there should be punchy flavor.
For my money, I'll be dining at Super Wok. A few chopsticks-full of fried rice and, suddenly, I was back on Route 10, freezing my tuchis off. What's more, the restaurant was the only setting where I could picture my 84-year-old grandma sitting down, pulling a Tupperware of Scotch out of her purse, and flagging down the nearest waitress for "a glass of ice, bubbala." With subtle decorations and abundant seating for large groups—including two round eight-tops—the space is ripe for (faux) festivity. If you aren't slated to be smooching someone under the mistletoe, I'll see you there.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Let it tso, let it tso, let it tso"