This month's cover story reminds me of all those restaurants where I first got a taste of ethnic food as
a youngster in New York City. I grew up in the Bronx, and each corner had its own luncheonette — hamburgers and chicken salad were always on the menu.
My dad, however, always looked for diversity, a menu that would introduce us to foods from another country or perhaps another borough. He had a method for choosing a good restaurant: If he couldn't recognize the language on the sign, it must be ethnic. If there was a dragon or another animal from a far off land on the sign, it must be exotic. If there was a chef on the sign with a tall white hat and a mustache, it must be international cuisine. He never asked what they specialized in or how long they had been in business. He only cared that hamburgers and chicken salad weren't the blue-plate special.
You have no idea how many Italian restaurants had the name Tony on their signage. For all I knew, this guy Tony was the sign maker. Any way you look at it, my dad would always stop at Tony's and request a table for five. Then he would ask for Tony as if they were friends. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there wasn't even a guy named Tony who worked there. So then my dad would ask for Vinny.
If he wasn't in the mood for Italian food, we would be whisked off to a deli — but only if the name on the sign sounded Jewish. If it weren't a Katz or a Ben, we wouldn't stop for a nosh. We would then visit his second choice for Jewish dining, a restaurant with the name Wong or Chang in its title. My people do like a good Chinese restaurant, but it has to be authentic, with a guy named Wong or Chang to seat us. The food didn't have to be good. Only the name of the establishment counted.
One night, my siblings and I were in the mood for French food. My dad did his usual thing and drove around endlessly looking for a restaurant with the name Pierre or Jacque in its title. The smart thing, though, would have been to look it up in the yellow pages, but that would negate the tried-and-true way to find a great ethnic restaurant, according to my dad.
We ate out at an ethnic restaurant every Sunday, and every Sunday we were treated to great food from the masters — like Vinny, Wong or Ben — all the while longing for a Tony who never seemed to be there.