Ming's Restaurant

by Ralph J. Chin


Ming’s Restaurant was a wildly popular Chinese American restaurant in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey during the late 1950’s, 60’s and early ‘70’s. It was located on the corner of Lyons Avenue and Clinton Place and the building still stands today although under a different ownership. I’m writing this in response to the many Newark Memories people who have responded to my original article on Newark and made many kind comments about Ming’s. Please Enjoy.

Long before I knew what a job was, I would hear my older cousins talking about how hard they would work at the family’s restaurant. Puzzled, I asked my mother if I would someday work at the restaurant, thinking it was some kind of family tradition. She looked at me and smiled, “Only if you want to” she said. I had heard stories in the family of the humble beginnings of Ming’s. How it all started in a small, one stove store that could only seat 8 people at the most and how it proceeded to grow into a huge monster of a business that overtook a neighboring furniture store once it closed. I have no personal memories of those times because those days were way before my time.

During my childhood I remember going over to my cousin Robert’s house to play and seeing the various restaurant workers going about their chores because my cousin’s house was located at the back of the restaurant. There were four garages in the back and the last two garages were taken over by the restaurant and converted into a storage facility for all the food and supplies that were required to keep the restaurant in business. It had a large walk-in refrigerator in the left corner that housed all the perishable foods while the rest of the garage stored canned items and non-perishable items that were neatly placed on shelving or stacked upon themselves on cardboard squares cut from the boxes that the supplies came in. There was a constant hum of activity between the back door of the restaurant which led to the main kitchen and the supply garage during the busy hours. During our days of playing we would occasionally catch various people prepping different things in the open air of the backyard or sometimes in the kitchen. One of my favorite memories is one of watching my grandfather prepping orders of spare ribs in a large container filled with his own personal mixture of hoisin sauce, water, herbs and spices that only he knew how to brew. He would dip a slab of ribs in the container and let it soak in the mixture for a period of time, his hands and arms red with juice of the marinade. Then he would take the ribs out and hang them in a large rotisserie oven that had a pan of water at the bottom. He explained that the juices from the meat from the heat of the oven would drip into the pan that was heated and the vapors from it would smoke or marinate the ribs with flavor.

I would often go to the back door of the restaurant to say hello to family and whatever co-workers were around at the time. Sometimes they would be too busy to talk and would give me a quick hello and then return to what they were doing. As you looked in the door there were four cooks tending large woks line up against the right hand wall. Beyond that there was a deep fryer for the egg rolls and whatever else needed to be fried. Next was a rotisserie type of oven that was used for marinating the spare ribs and finally there was the gas fired grill that was used to cook the spare ribs until done. Adjacent to this grill was a table where the spare ribs were cut up and packed in a stiff bag that had aluminum like material on the inside and red Chinese writing on a white background on the outside. All take out orders for ribs originated here as well as orders for the main dining room. In back of the cooks was an immense stainless steel steam table that housed various menu items such as Wonton Soup, Egg Drop Soup, Chow Mein and assorted other dishes some of which I never knew their names. Above the steam table was a stainless steel shelf for the transfer of food between the waiters and the cooks.

To the immediate left of the back door was a storage place for all the condiments that was used by the chefs and then a small walk-in refrigerator that housed the more popular perishable items on the menu. Adjacent to the walk-in refrigerator were a series of 6 large stainless sinks arranged in an “L” configuration which jutted out into the middle of the room and framed a large utility bench that was used to make anything from egg rolls to fortune cookies. The large stainless steel sinks were used to wash all the dishes of the restaurant. The rest of the kitchen was devoted to various things like coffee, tea, soda, dishes, utensils, napkins, boxes and bags for the take out orders, ice cream and the storage of items like Fortune and Almond cookies. It was the job of the waiters to know where everything was and resupply the things that ran low. Two large black swinging doors separated the kitchen area from the main dining room. One was the “in” door to the kitchen and the other was the “out” door to the dining room. There was no collision of waiters that were hurriedly doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Sometimes these doors would swing open with a lot of force during the busy hours of lunch and dinner but the layout of the kitchen was so that nothing was placed in the way to impede this progress. The waiters would come flying in the door screaming out their orders in Chinese, dump some things off, pick up a few things and be out the door into the dining area in a matter of minutes.

If you had ever been to Ming’s, you would know that the main entrance was on Lyons Avenue through double wide doors. As you entered, to your immediate left would be the cashier counter that also housed the candy and after dinner treats for the customers. If you had walk straight in the front door and kept walking you would end up near the restrooms. After the cashier counter the maitre d’ would guide you to your left and you would go down two steps into the enormous main dining room area. I don’t remember how many people could be seated in the main dining room but I would guess it to be about at least a 100 people, if not more. The building was formerly a furniture store so I’ll leave it to your imagination. On weekends, I would remember seeing the people lining up waiting to get in and the line would go down the entire block. Since it was at least a half an hour wait or more from the end of the line, I realized very early on that Ming’s was an extremely popular restaurant.

In school, my teachers would always corner me in some way and start talking about Ming’s perhaps trying to get a free meal out of the deal. I don’t know if that was true but that’s what it seemed like to me. Even people I didn’t know would come up to me and start talking about the restaurant. When they asked questions, I would tell them what I knew from what I observed but little else, after all, I was still in elementary school!!!

A few times in the winter, I would ask my grandfather if I could shovel the snow from the front of the restaurant and get paid. He would always agree and paid me well. I was probably paid much more than I should have gotten paid had I been someone else. Family was always taking care of family and it was always a tightly knit family. But it wasn’t until my high school years that I looked upon the restaurant as a means to get some serious spending money. All my older cousins were now out of the restaurant and into their own adult lives. They had no need to work in the restaurant any longer because most of them had much higher paying jobs. This left only me and the cousins who were approximately the same age as me to work the “little” jobs in the restaurant.

As it came to pass my cousin Robert and I were elected to work together packaging the take out and dining room orders for the spare ribs and egg rolls on Sundays. Little did we know how busy this corner of the restaurant would be! I remember that we both loved the spare ribs so much and would playfully fight over the bits that were left after I cut the ribs up. After a while we would each have our own stash of ribs at the end of the night. My uncle used to stop by the corner to playfully say “Hey kids, don’t eat up the profits” and walk away laughing along with everyone else in the kitchen. Unfazed we would put every unused piece of rib in our bags to be savored later on at home. There were times when I was constantly cooking slabs of ribs on the grill and resupplying the deep fryer with a ton of egg rolls It would get quite hot in this portion of the kitchen but I never seemed to mind. My most vivid memory was an order of spare ribs that a customer ordered well done. I cooked them until they were a little blackened and then sent them out to the dining room. They immediately came back and I was told to totally blacken them. I did this and to my amazement, the customer loved it! I never figured that one out because by the time the meat was blackened like that it was almost like eating charcoal!! At the end of the night, my grandfather would come over and pay us kids and we would go home with a smile on our faces. We quickly forgot all the oddities and struggles that the long day presented to us.

Much to my surprise when it came to dinner time for the kitchen workers, the restaurant food was usually off limits. My grandmother would cook up some “real” Chinese food that usually included fish and rice with some kind of vegetable in it. Some of it was good but most of it was not to my taste back then and many times my cousin and I would opt out and eat a slab of ribs with an eggroll and some rice. My grandmother would find this eating habit horrible and she would say something in Cantonese to us which we did not understand and walk away from us with a disgusted look on her face. I remember asking my cousin if he understood what she had just said and he would just shrugged his shoulders and say “Don’t worry about it”. A lot of the waiters were bilingual and spoke fluent Cantonese. They would try to teach us it over the course of the night and when they finally realized that we just weren’t interested in learning the language, they shook their heads in disbelief. If this wasn’t a culture clash, I don’t know what else to call it!!! Looking back, it was a golden opportunity to become more involved in my Chinese heritage and I often regret this lack of interest shown by my cousins and me. I guess we were just happy to be considered Americans living in a wonderful Jewish/Italian neighborhood of Newark!!! I hope you enjoyed this insider’s look at the inner workings of the restaurant called Ming’s! Thanks for all your kind comments!


Ralph J. Chin


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