Johnny Chan 2 is a good Chinese restaurant.
Historically, in the United States at least, there is a definite connection between Chinese eateries and Jewish diners out. Roots of this connection seem most logically to have taken hold due to the relative proximity of the Chinese and Jewish “communities” of New York City in latter decades of the 19th century. The two ethnicities back then lived cheek to jowl in the seedy, gritty, cheap enclaves on the Lower East Side of that pullulating metropolis. To set the scene, this was a grouping of neighborhoods rife with tenements beset by vile odors arising from docks and factories and teeming humanity, sardined into every available room in every dilapidated building along every trash-strewn street. Pretty picture, huh?
Again historically, the two groups shared a common problem – discrimination from a self-delusional better-than-thou “nativist” population of longer-standing Americans, white and Anglo-Saxon, mostly. According to Sarah Lohman, author of “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine,” “there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” and among perceived shortcomings, “they were criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an ‘American’ religion.”
In a word, Jews were unwelcome. This attitude manifests itself in nativist owned shops and eateries that simply refused service to would-be Jewish patrons. The unwelcome sign was out almost everywhere, with one exception – at Chinese businesses and restaurants.
The Asian ghetto of those days, known as Chinatown, lay geographically next door to the Jewish sector of the City’s Lower East Side. In his book “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish,” Joshua Eli Plaut writes that the Chinese, who also felt the slings and arrows of Christianity, held little or no prejudice against Jewish patrons, and accepted them as customers in their restaurants.
Naturally, patrons gravitate to places where they are accepted, and the Jewish love affair with Chinese food was borne of that acceptance. Adding to the attraction were the facts that Chinese eateries were convenient to the Jewish community in New York, and they were inexpensive.
According to historian Yong Chen, Jews saw dining out as an American custom they wanted to try, because it “represented American cosmopolitanism and middle-class status,” and while the food was not kosher, it was close enough to allow them to pretend it was. And the food was wholesome, good tasting and obvious in its ingredients – they could tell what they were eating, which was not the case with a hotdog or a burger.
So, back to Johnny Chan 2 and the food of this venerable Chinese restaurant. Like his predecessors of a century and more ago, Frank Shi of Johnny Chan 2 welcomes all, but has a special affection for Jewish patrons. “We have lots of Jewish customer all the time,” he says. “We appreciate Jewish customers all year, all the time.”
There is more, though. Shi says he and his kitchen staff are devoted to the healthful preparation practices and ingredient choices that set his eatery apart from many “Asian” restaurants in Greater Cincinnati. He chooses cooking methods that produce low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-sodium entrees. Shi believes the whole approach he takes is one reason diners, Jewish and otherwise, chose his restaurant: “People come here for lunch, they say: ‘Oh, very good; everything fresh.’ They like the lunch buffet. We make by hand, all sauces. Our food is all fresh and high quality.”
He added that many restaurants specializing in Chinese and Asian foods use packaged and canned ingredients and add-ins such as sauces, which makes preparation easier. Shi said the pre-pack approach results in less flavor and dishes that are, in the end, lower in quality and healthfulness. He added that doing prep by hand with fresh ingredients is always better: “Food not as good if you don’t have that hand skill, make from good, fresh ingredients.”
Here in 2019, we are far removed from the genesis of a tradition that began in New York so long ago. That said, the tradition lives because the food is tasty and good, and the kosher-style dining option is still there for Jewish patrons.
See you at Johnny Chan 2!
Johnny Chan 2
11296 Montgomery Road
Cincinnati, Ohio, 45249