Several days after our meal at King Yum, a Chinese-American Tiki restaurant on Union Turnpike in Hillcrest, and we're still smiling. When it opened almost 60 years ago, Americans were in the midst of an affair with all things Polynesian. King Yum was deeply of the moment, a casually elegant destination restaurant, a hot spot on the Queens version of Mad Men (Mad Mensch?). The menu has evolved some since then, and adults no longer dress for dinner in quite the same way, but the vibe feels essentially unchanged. In here, dinner is an event, white tablecloths are a matter of course, and too much familiarity with actual Chinese cooking would seem vaguely suspicious. Purists may sneer at the pu pu platter and General Tao's chicken, but dinner at King Yum is an authentically American experience.
Our meal began with an overflowing bowl of fried wontons, served with nose-clearing mustard and duck sauce. To drink, weak oolong tea. We looked around: Tiki masks galore, a stage where karaoke is held every Friday, a Buddha, fake parrots, a Tiki bar. Our table had salt and pepper shakers but no chopsticks.
Fat floated in the wonton soup ($2.15), which we stirred and sipped, savoring its warm porkiness.
The pu pu platter ($22.95)—yup, we ordered it—overflowed. We eagerly held the honey-glazed, pepper-dusted beef skewers to the Sterno flame, competing to see whose could flame up higher, making well-done meat excessively done. Each shrimp toast burst, overstuffed and slightly greasy, like a pillow that had been left out in the rain. Best were the fantail shrimp, a jumbo shrimp encased in a thick layer of butter-colored breading. Into the flame they went, then into the mustard, then the duck sauce.
We gnawed the fat off the chewy spare ribs and opened the tinfoil packets and gobbled the sweet ginger chicken balls nestled inside. Was the food this sugary when we were kids? Did everyone back then have diabetes?
Washcloths soaked in boiling water and bleach eased the transition between courses. Next up were supremely fresh string beans in garlic sauce ($6.50) and a porktastic combination dinner ($12.25): pork fried rice, pork lo mein, and an egg roll stuffed with shreds of pork and cabbage. Nothing innovative, but all good.
To conclude, a scoop of strawberry ice cream ($2.75), a bowl of "cherry" jello ($2.00), and two fortune cookies. This might be the first time we've ever had jello in a restaurant with linen tablecloths, but it's just another marker of how insulated from time this place feels. A woman near us complained that her cookie was missing its fortune. "No news is good news," the waiter responded.
Recently, in Manhattan, bars like The Hurricane Club and PKNY have brought tiki back. Out in Queens, at King Yum, it never left. With its fun atmosphere and familiar food, King Yum is best for: a date with the postwar past.