Joe Yee Cafe: The Best Chop Suey in Town

by Paula Bosse

joe-yee-cafe-ext

by Paula Bosse

I came across the above image and was enthralled. I’ve never heard of the Joe Yee Cafe, but this (granted) idealized picture is wonderful. The postcards above and below were from the early 1950s, and if you are familiar with the generally run-down neighborhood around Columbia and Fitzhugh these days, you may well shed a tear that something this charming and picturesque has been gone for many, many years. (Click the above postcard for a larger image — it is pretty spectacular, as these things go.)

joe-yee-cafe-interior

I love the surprising color scheme of the restaurant’s interior — those fabulous purples and greens! (The colors are a bit unexpected because they so loudly clash with the bold tomato red of the exterior.)

I did a little research to see what I could find out about Joe Yee’s Chinese restaurant. Seems that Mr. Yee’s cafe was in business by the 1930s, downtown, on Main Street near Field. It advertised steadily over the years, and its ads proudly proclaimed that the restaurant served “the best Chinese food you ever tasted” and was “completely air-conditioned.” Several newspaper accounts (particularly the society columns) mentioned it as a popular place for young people to grab a bite before and after dances at nearby downtown hotels. Business must have been pretty good for the place to have lasted so long at such a primo location. The cafe moved to the Columbia Street location in 1950 where it remained in business until at least 1953.

joe-yee-cafe_matchbk

1938-joe-yee_dmn_112538(1938)

1943-joe-yee_dmn_081243(1943)

1951-joe-yee_dmn_011451New location! (1951)

1951-joe-yee_dmn_022651(1951)

1953-joe-yee_dmn_083053The last ad I found. (1953)

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Below are two newspaper articles from 1931 about feuding partners in a downtown Chinese restaurant, all eight of whom went by the name “Joe.” I’m not certain that litigant Joe Wah Yee was later the owner of the Joe Yee Cafe, but it seems likely. The article about the lawsuit cites an instance of one of the men being driven from the kitchen by an “obnoxious and troublesome” chef brandishing a butcher knife. Yeah, that sounds pretty obnoxious, all right. Even if this isn’t the same Joe Yee, it’s an amusing example nonetheless of the timeless perils of being a restaurateur. (Click for larger image.)

joe-yee_dmn_111831(DMN, Nov. 18, 1931)

joe-yee_dmn_112131(DMN, Nov. 21, 1931)

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Top two early-’50s postcards are from the great Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection on Flickr, here. Click top card for glorious enlargement!

Ads and articles from the Dallas Morning News.

In old photos of downtown Dallas one often sees “Chop Suey” signs along the streets. I’d love to know more about these restaurants in general, and about Chinese and Chinese-Americans in Dallas in the first half of the 20th century, if anyone can point me to a good source.

I think I might have had chop suey once — a long time ago. It was kind of slimy, and it turned me off of Chinese food for years. Happily, I’m back in the fold now, but even though the dish always sounds kind of cool in old black-and-white movies, it would take a LOT for me to order ever again. Is this dish even still in fashion? If background on the dish is needed, might I point you to to the Wikipedia entry here, or the Snopes entry here. As for me, I’ll have the moo shu pork.

Several images are larger when clicked.

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Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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