A tiki treasure in Fresh Meadows
We were saddened to learn last week of the passing of Jimmy Eng, the founder of King Yum, the Cantonese restaurant in Queens. The Fresh Meadows restaurant is a treasure, said to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in the borough -- it opened in 1953. The place is also a rare example of a mid-century Polynesian restaurant. New York once had a Trader Vic's, for example, but these days, King Yum and the Jade Island in Staten Island are among the last survivors in the region.
We haven't been to the Staten Island location, but we visited King Yum in late December. Visitors are struck immediately by how remarkable a place it is the minute they walk in, with the colorful tiki statue beside a waterfall and the gracious greeting by the attentive staff. We were seated in the Polynesian room, a treasure trove of tiki masks and lanterns, as well as huts that enclose tables for more intimate gatherings. One of the huts is set aside for karaoke. Service was stupendous, and the food and drink was solid: the pu pu platter, the fantastic Polynesian drinks, and the main dishes were right on the money.
What's great about these places is the sense of history and community. It's a true living link to another era in American dining, yet it does not feel fusty and forgotten, like some older places that have managed to hang on. And it wouldn't be so crowded if the food wasn't worth savoring. The tables are full of students from nearby St. John's University and long-time patrons who can't get enough of the place. The staff is friendly, and our departure was accompanied by a mini-tour, including the area beside the bar that is a tribute to King Yum's, including photos from King Yum's first anniversary party featuring a young Uncle Jimmy, and notables who have made the visit over the years. We even received a few gifts, including a fancy King Yum pen and wall calendar. We were sold, and will happily come back.
It's difficult to think of the place, though, without Uncle Jimmy holding court. We're grateful to have visited before his passing. That wall display now serves as a fine tribute to a man who was a New York institution.
Get there: By public transportation, take the E or F to Union Turnpike-Kew Gardens, and then take the Q46 bus to the restaurant, a 10-minute ride. It's at 181-08 Union Turnpike.
-- Rolando Pujol