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Eating Chinese food at the Far East Cafe was our family tradition. If there was a birthday to celebrate, a visitor to welcome, a moment to commemorate,  it was done at the Far East. Our version of a family reunion was meeting at the Far East and communing over plates, served family style, of pork chow mein, pork hash, char siu, tofu, bok choy, sweet and sour pork, and egg rolls. If we were lucky and the adults were feeling flush, we got fried shrimp. It was served with little condiment dishes of cocktail sauce that we mixed with hot Chinese mustard.

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The Far East Cafe was on 1st St. in downtown Los Angeles. It was actually located in Little Tokyo. The neighborhood, like most of the city proper back then, was old, run down, and a little grimy. The restaurant opened in 1935. My mom, the oldest of her siblings, was born in 1933, so she and her brothers literally grew up eating the food here. My grandparents, both Hawaiian Island natives who grew up eating Chinese and Japanese food, naturally gravitated to this little home away from home.

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Inside, the dining tables were divided by wood partitions, so families could take over the space without feeling like they were disturbing other diners. If you followed the walkways to the back of the building, you entered the kitchen. Today, I’m sure, the kitchen would violate every health code on the books. It was not separated behind walls and doors or even counters from the rest of the restaurant, and you had to walk through it to reach the bathroom – a single toilet affair with one of those old, cloth hand-towel machines that rotated the same used, wet towel over and over.

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Can you imagine the germs?

Upon being seated, the  waiters brought  big pots of hot tea. It was served unsweetened in little cups. The adults ordered the same food every time. You don’t mess with tradition or perfection. The meat was always pork. The cooking oil was peanut. The noodles were pan-fried and you hoped for the crunchy, browned parts on your plate. Big bowls of sticky white rice anchored the food on the table. We never order fried rice. That wasn’t “real” Chinese. No one made sweet and sour pork like Far East Cafe. When I was older and experienced “other people’s” Chinese food, I was shocked by the overly sweet, pink food-colored impostors. I felt sorry for these people that only knew neon-hued sweet and sour.

The food at Far East was Cantonese, which has fallen out of favor these days. The style today is Szechuan which packs a lot of heat. The kick in Cantonese food came from the dipping sauce we created from Chinese mustard and soy. My uncles’ mixtures would be thick, more yellow than black, and so hot it made your eyes water and nose tingle and  run. We dunked the egg rolls, pork hash and char siu in the mustard-soy before eating.

There were no desserts at Far East Cafe, but they did sell Chinese preserved plums at the cash register.

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If the weather was warm, and we were lucky, the shave ice counter at the back of the candy store across the street was open and we could have Hawaiian-style shave ice for dessert. Heaven. We pitied the poor kids who only knew rainbow-colored crushed-ice snow cones that came out of the side of a musical truck. My mother almost always bought some Botan rice candy for us as well.

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We then walked up and down the street eating our shave ice. We liked to look at the food displays in the windows of the Japanese restaurants.

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Why do the Japanese do this?

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We also watched the ladies at the Japanese bakery make little bean-filled pastries.

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A couple of the stores sold mochi.

Mochi is expensive, so we didn’t get it very often, but rejoiced when we did.

With our  shave ice finished, it was time to head back to our cars and drive home. The last time I went to the Far East Cafe was the summer of 1993. We were visiting Los Angeles and took the kids to share in the custom of family and food. A few months later an earthquake centered in Northridge so damaged the 60-year-old building that it was condemned. The restaurant never re-opened and we still mourn. Truly!

The earth is torn asunder and our chow mein is no more

The other sweet and sours, they are false

Gone is our Cantonese

The Panda and P.F. do not measure

Weep, weep and wail

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