Remembering the Port Arthur Restaurant with Pepper Steak Candles

As with orange chicken, beef with broccoli, and beef with shrimp, pepper steak is a Chinese-American dish. Unable to find some of the ingredients that were commonly used in China, Chinese immigrants (as with other immigrants who have come to the United States), have had to adapt their cultural foods to locally available ingredients. For example, in the days before bok choy became commonly available in U.S. supermarkets, most Chinese cooks used broccoli as a substitute. Since American tastes are largely oriented towards beef, Chinese restauranteurs adapted dishes like pepper steak, (traditionally made with pork in China’s Fujian Province) to use beef instead of pork.

Crab rangoon, Chinese chicken salad, sesame chicken, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are additional examples of Chinese American dishes that are not found in China. Even the ubiquitous Chinese take-out food box that is so often associated with Chinese-American restaurants is not used by mainland Chinese restaurants. These take out cartons were popularized in the United States during the 1950’s. Although today’s cartons use  solid bleached sulfate paperboard instead of paper, the basic design hasn’t changed in the past seventy years.

I grew up spending summers at my maternal grandmother’s Chinese American restaurant in New York where I washed dishes, served tables, and worked as a cashier. My grandmother’s name was Florence Ho and she was the last owner of the Port Arthur Restaurant. The Port Arthur was established in 1897 by a man named Chu Gam Fai. For 85 years, this three floor restaurant at 7-9 Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown was operational. Until its closure in 1982, the Port Arthur was the city’s oldest continually operated Chinese restaurant. It was also the city’s first Chinese restaurant to ever receive a liquor license.

During its heyday, the Port Arthur catered to a largely ethnic Chinese clientele. The ground floor was rented out as a gift shop. Diners entered the restaurant via a staircase to the left of the store. Beside the staircase was an escalator. The escalator was quite a novelty at the time. The first working prototype was patented in 1892 by Jesse Reno. It was later introduced as a novelty ride at Coney Island in 1896.

The Port Arthur’s escalator was built by Jesse Reno’s Otis Company. Between 1900 and 1920, Otis installed 350 escalators in New York City. One of these was at the Port Arthur.

The Port Arthur was known for its banquets. People came to eat with large family gatherings in celebration of birthdays and weddings. They also had funeral meals in which the grieving family hosted a lunch or dinner in memory of the deceased.

Pictured below is a menu from 1926.

Port Arthur menu from 1926

The old restaurant featured teak chairs, inlaid pearl mahogany tables, ornately carved wooden panels, lanterns, and chandeliers. At one time it even had a baby grand piano.

I first saw this restaurant as a child back in the 60’s. Most of the inlaid tables were gone but the carved panels in the back was still there. The piano was also there but hadn’t been used in years and was badly out of tune. Pictured below is a photograph that was taken sometime in the 60’s.

Under my grandmother’s management, a chef was brought in from Hong Kong. This chef specialized in such dishes as Peking Duck, steamed bass, and fried Daikon radish cakes. The clientele were primarily Chinese but as the years passed, tastes and circumstances changed. Banquet dinners became less common. The restaurant’s business was further hurt when the escalator broke and aging diners found themselves unable or unwilling to climb the stairs. Given how old the escalator was, spare parts were not available. Although Otis was still in business, their focus had long since shifted to the production and installation of elevators.

By the late 70’s and early 80’s, the clientele had changed from ethnic Chinese locals to non-Asian tourists. The menu had also changed and featured such Chinese American favorites as fried rice, chow mein, and sweet and sour pork.

Port Arthur Restaurant circa 1970’s

Sometime in 1981, a city code enforcement officer told my grandmother that her bathrooms were outdated and not in compliance with the current building code. Grandmother spent thousands of dollars renovating the bathrooms only to find out that during the renovation the city had again revised the applicable code. By the time the remodeling was finished, the bathrooms that would have been in compliance with the old code were deemed out of compliance with the new one.

To make matters worse, grandmother’s chef announced his retirement. He wanted nothing more than to return to Hong Kong and to spend his golden years with his relatives. Faced with the cost of restroom renovations and the loss of her chef, Grandma Ho decided to retire. The Port Arthur served its last meal in 1982.

The Port Arthur is now a a community center

In 2013, the old building was renovated and opened as a community center. The pagoda like store front is long gone along with the dated interior. Rows of chairs have replaced the dining room furniture and senior citizens now occupy these seats where they play games or practice Qigong, an ancient exercise that features coordinated body posture and movement, breathing, and meditation that’s used for exercise, spirituality, and martial arts training.

Having recently received a supply of black peppercorn candle fragrance oil, I decided to make a beef with peppers candle in memory of my grandmother and her restaurant. Although beef with peppers was popularized during the 1940’s, in 1926 the Port Arthur served a similar dish known in Cantonese as fan care jew gnow (beef steak with peppers and tomatoes) which sold for 60 cents. If you look closely at the above menu, you’ll see this dish listed as item 38 which is the last item on the menu. I have recreated this dish in the candle form pictured below.

As a side note, I will mention that the menu was bilingual in both Chinese and English. The English phonetics (taken from the menu) were Cantonese because most of the early Chinese immigrants were from the southern (Cantonese) areas of China due to their proximity to major ports. The major language in China and the language spoken by educated folk is Mandarin. While both Cantonese and Mandarin use the same written ideographs, the spoken languages are quite different. As a third generation U.S. citizen, my cousins and I were the first members of our family who were raised speaking English instead of Chinese. None of us are fluent in either Cantonese or Mandarin.

This candle smells of stir fried beef steak with ginger, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, brown sugar, and lemon grass.

The tomatoes were especially fun to make. I made the tomatoes by mixing soy wax with medium density candle gel, red dye coloring, and a tomato fragrance. After the tomatoes came out of the mold, I painted in the yellow seeds and the white core. When the paint was dry I brushed the tomato slice with melted candle gel. The judicious use of acrylic black paint added to the illusion of charring for both the tomatoes and the beef.

2 comments

  1. When I ate at the Port Arthur in 1973-74 the ornate exterior was long gone and you had to climb the stairs, but the dining room was still filled with beautiful tables of dark wood inlaid with mother of pearl. The ambiance was wonderfully atmospheric, like time traveling back to the 1920s.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s