Birmingham’s best restaurant ever

'Special Dinner Any Time,' with egg roll Chop Suey Inn. (Similar to 'Mandarin Special' from Joy Youngs. Egg foo young not shown
‘Special Dinner Any Time,’ with egg roll Chop Suey Inn. (Similar to ‘Mandarin Special’ from Joy Young. Egg foo young not shown)

By David Sher

Birmingham’s a great place for foodies.

We have fantastic restaurants…like Highland Bar & Grill, El Barrio, Automatic Seafood, and Helen.

There have been other great restaurants past or present, but in my heart and stomach, none compare to an American Chinese Restaurant that opened in 1919 and operated successfully mostly in downtown Birmingham for about 70 years.

The name of the restaurant was Joy Young and I ate hundreds of meals there in my youth and young adult years.

According to BhamWiki, “In October 1925 the restaurant moved to 412 20th Street North opposite the Tutwiler Hotel, soon expanding into the former shop next door. The owner Mansion Joe, and manager Henry Loo, had earned reputations as friendly, generous businessmen, sometimes helping provide meals to the needy. That reputation served them well as the Ku Klux Klan found no support from the public in efforts to drive the restaurant out of business.”

When I was growing up in the ‘50’s, our family often ate at Joy Young on Sundays and special occasions. Certainly when out-of-town family came to town, we gathered there.

It uniquely featured both American and Chinese food. And even though I liked Chinese, I usually ordered the 1/2 fried chicken meal. To this day, it is the best fried chicken I ever tasted. I ordered my dinner with a shrimp cocktail, fries, English peas, yeast rolls, and a slice of scrumptious caramel pie for dessert. Believe it or not, the shrimp and pie were included in the price. Many customers loved their homemade almond cookies.

My family lived on the Southside of Birmingham and when I was old enough to ride the bus by myself, I took the #12 Highland Avenue bus downtown to meet my friends. We would go to Joy Young for lunch and then to a movie at the Alabama, Ritz, Melba, or Empire Theater.

One summer a close friend invited an out-of-town visitor to lunch with us at Joy Young. We always walked the stairs to the balcony because the booths on the balcony had curtains which gave us some privacy. The waiter immediately placed a plate of large fluffy yeast rolls on the table. The visitor had never been to an American Chinese restaurant and didn’t understand the dynamics.  There was always a large bowl of hot mustard on the table available for the Chinese food. My friend told his guest that the hot mustard was a special delicious butter. The unsuspecting visitor grabbed a warm roll, slathered the hot mustard over it and took a big bite. I can still hear his scream.

While in high school I worked downtown on the weekends at my dad’s business. We would often go to lunch together. He always wanted to eat at Morrison’s Cafeteria or John’s Restaurant. When I went to lunch with my mom, she usually chose Britling Cafeteria. But occasionally I was able to convince one of them to eat at Joy Young.

In later years when my wife and I had small children, we would often go to Joy Young and eat on the balcony in one of the private booths. One time our kids snuck out of the booth and started dropping food on the diners below. We didn’t know if we would be allowed back or not.

On the rare occasion when I chose to eat Chinese instead of fried chicken, I ordered an egg roll and the ‘Mandarin Special’—chicken chow mein, egg foo young, and rice. I can’t remember how much I paid for the egg roll, but the Mandarin Special at that time was 89 cents.

According to BhamWiki, “Joy Young closed its downtown location in the mid 1980’s. Third-generation owner Henry Joe reopened in the Brookwood Gallery, a retail strip on the ground floor of the Brookwood Medical Center parking deck where it operated for several more years. Joy Young ended its life as a take-out egg roll store in Pelham.”

Today when I crave a Joy Young-type egg roll and the ‘Mandarin Special,’ I pick up at Chop Suey Inn on Green Springs Avenue in Homewood. The egg rolls are very similar to the Joy Young’s of my youth and what once was the Joy Young ‘Mandarin Special’ is listed on the Chop Suey Inn menu as ‘Special Dinner Any Time.’

Many of you have your favorite Birmingham restaurant. Please take a moment to comment and share your experiences at Joy Young or your favorite.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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38 thoughts on “Birmingham’s best restaurant ever”

  1. If you’re from Birmingham, you’ll get it!
    Showing my age a little, but we paid TWENTY-FIVE CENTS for that Special Lunch! Joy Young’s and the Joe Family
    provided us great food w/white tablecloths, reasonable prices and were great Citizens ! Miss ‘em a lot!

  2. Best fried chicken ever! And after eating there browse the Smith and Hardwick bookstore. Another great restaurant on the same block as Joy Young’s was Cafe Italiano. I can still taste the Around the World Pizza! Those sure were the days of great food in downtown.

    1. Love this article so much! Loved eating at Joy Young’s! My family always went to Panama City in the summer. We stayed at Bell’s cottages and one summer the JoeSoon family stayed next to us. They had 8 kids (maybe more) all boys except 1 girl named Sulinn. We became fast friends during our vacation. I was invited to their home after vacation and we had her fried chicken. To this day I have not had fried chicken that tasted that delicious. This was a very dear and special family that I was graced to my friend. Special memories.

  3. My mother and brother’s favorite B’ham restaurant! Dad preferred those cafeterias but he loved Joy Young’s Fried Chicken. I still crave John’s and the old Nikki’s. Still go to the Bright Star when i’m “home.” And I really miss Browdy’s!!!

    1. Oh, the original Nikki’s on 2nd avenue. In the dead of winter I would go there late afternoon and have a Miller, bread sticks and a bowl of gumbo. When I splurged on the weekends the menu item of choice was always the whole fried speckled trout with fries and a Greek salad. Nikki’s had the second best gumbo in the city. Of all places on earth, the mezzanine restaurant at Pizitz downtown had the best #1 gumbo I have ever tasted. Filled with fish, shrimp, crab claws and oysters.

    2. Loved John’s and Browdy’s. The Browdy’s family were as hard working as anyone. I remember the old Browdy’s and then the new one in the same center with one of the Cafeteria’s mentioned. I think Breitlins. When did John’s close?

      1. Browdy’s closed somewhere in the late 2000’s I think. Wasn’t the same after they moved to the Western plaza, in my opinion. I truly miss all of these places.

      2. I don’t know when John’s closed. It struggled for years; I don’t even remember the last time I ate there, but it was a shell of its former self and made me so sad.

  4. I worked at Brookwood Medical Center and was HQ’ed two doors down from Joy Young under the parking deck. Henry Joe and I became friends; he was very proud of their big wok cooking area. Their eggs rolls were the best in the area. I will always miss them. The acceleration of other Chinese/Asian restaurants in the mid-to-late 1990s spelled the end of “old fashioned” Chinese-American dishes. Today, there is not a neighborhood without an excellent Asian-American cuisine offering, but in the old days, it was only Joy Young, R.I.P. Time moves on…China Cafe in Pelham still makes the large, crusty fried egg rolls, but without the minced pork and shrimp bits I remember from Joy Young.

    1. Chop Suey Inn on the Green Springs Highway makes egg rolls with the pork and shrimp still. They are just like Joy Young’s.

  5. Joy Young was simply the best! I went there many times as it was my mom’s favorite restaurant(that and the Bright Star in our hometown of Bessemer). I usually ordered the Mandarin Lunch because you got chicken chow me in, rice and the egg goo young. Of course we always got the egg rolls. I have never eaten one since that can compare to Joy Young’s. I never had the fried chicken but remember glancing at my dads because that’s what he usually ordered; man did it ever look good and it was huge as well. I will have to try the Chop Suey Inn the next time I’m in Birmingham. I sure do miss Joy Young.

  6. Thank you for your memory. I too grew up on Southside at 18th Avenue South in the late 50’s and early sixties and my family regularly ate at Joy Young. It was always a treat.

  7. Absolutely the best egg roll I have ever had!! I ate regularly at Joy Young once I moved here in 1977. Miss them SO much!!

  8. We use to go every Sunday with my grandparents. My grandfather would order a steak. We all loved Mr. Joe.

  9. I was a poor college student in the early 80’s, working at a store in Brookwood Village. After work, I’d run by Joy Young at Brookwood Hospital and order 3 egg rolls. The three egg rolls and another sack full of yeast rolls…all for 3 dollars. I’d eat for 3 days for 3 dollars and loved it!

  10. Appreciate this article as I was not aware of what happened to Joy Young. I became aware of this great restaurant in the 1970’s when I lived in the Birmingham area for 5 years. Loved their Sweet & Sour Shrimp.

  11. As a African American kid iam not sure we were allowed to eat a Joy Young but My Uncle an some of his an my dad’s friends Worked there until they closed so they would bring food home after work they loved working at that place so all my food from there was leftovers but good My Dad worked for ACIPCO and tried to get my uncle to leave Joy Young to work there but he said on good weekend he would bring home a couple of 100$ dollars as waiter so he stayed In 60’s that was Great money for anyone but especially an African American anyway Joy Young was a part of my family History

  12. Joy Young was one of my gap’s favorite as well. In addition to the egg rolls and chow mein , I loved the Butterflied Shrimp. Mr. Henry Joe died just this past year. He was a fine man!

  13. I don’t remember if my grandparents ever took me to Joy Young when I visited. Perhaps. But just seeing those two words on my screen brought back such a rush of memories of hearing my grandmother say those two words and then talk about the wonderful times she and my grandfather would have when they went there for dinner. What a rush! Thank you so much, David, for unlocking one little mosaic piece of my memories of cherished times in Birmingham.

    Debra Berkowitz Darvick

  14. I am so, so glad you gave a shout out to Joy Young. They saved us children from having to eat my father’s cooking many a day when my mother was out of commission! We loved it—all of it. The curtains, the lighting, the owners, and the excitement of a chance to go downtown! We were very young.

  15. I certainly do agree with all the great comments on Joy Young.
    My family went there for dinner many times and the food was
    always wonderful.
    Chop Suey and Egg Foo Young were my favorites.

  16. Fun to read, David, and yes we went there, as a family. Also, went to Dales and The Luau ( and then to Howard Johnson’s of course). One of my favorite memories is when Jacks Hamburgers came into being. I can still sing the song and for a special treat my Dad would sometimes take us for the $.15 hamburger. So good good good …..

  17. Joy Young was the best although I enjoyed Britlings and Morrison’s as well. Spent many a summer day downtown eating at one of these great restaurants or the Krystal if we were low on cash. Then we got to see a movie in frigid air conditioning at the Alabama, the Empire or the Lyric escaping the humidity of a hot afternoon. Great memories.

  18. I love Chop Suey Inn. I used to live on Beacon Pkwy and would pick up there all the time. I do remember as a young lady eating at the downtown location. I still drive across town to pickup…..love the food!!!!!

  19. I remember Joy Young restaurant, though I didn’t eat there often. As a Tuscaloosa native, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Moon Gate Inn in downtown T-town. It was opened by the late Ron Robel, a UA Asian studies scholar. Through his expertise in Chinese culture and food, the Moon Gate Inn offered probably the most authentic Chinese food anywhere in Alabama. I don’t think you could order fries or caramel pie there. But I get Joy Young’s place in Birmingham history and taste buds.

    1. My senior year at UA, our Crimson Tide newspaper staff closed out the year with dinner at the Moon Gate. My fiance and the editor drank saki…and drank saki…and drank saki until they were getting ready to swing from the rafters when we got them out!

  20. Joy Young was a fantastic restaurant. I have gone to Chop Suey Inn pretty much since it’s inception and it is equally as awesome. Legend has it that the original owner operator of Chop Suey Inn came from Joy Young and actually was a chef and made the Joy Young egg rolls. He used to make them right in front of you at the original Chop Suey Inn. The gentleman I am talking about retired and his children or nephews still run it to this day. While I cannot guarantee it’s authenticity, it makes for a great story and regardless Chop Suey Inn has the best egg rolls and is an awesome restaurant with great food and super nice owners.

  21. David,
    Thanks so much for the article. I’m the oldest surviving member of the Joe family in Birmingham. Needless to say this article brought back a flood of memories I’d love to share with you over lunch or dinner one day. I’m a soon to be retired physician with a tremendous love of our city and am so grateful for your ability to bring out Birmingham’s best both past and present, with an eye on it’s future. Let me know if it works out in your schedule to meet. Thanks again from the Joe family and everyone affiliated with Joy Young restaurant.

    1. So happy to see your reply. Our family frequented Joy Young’s and there is no replacement! I believe you and Henry went to School with my brother Lex. Just thinking about your family and Joy Young’s brings back so many wonderful memories.

  22. Oh my goodness…. Does this article ever bring back fond memories! Being from Jasper, in the 1950’s it was an hour and 1/2 trip after Sunday church services to motor east to B’ham to eat at Joy Young. I always ordered “off the menu” which included tenderloin of trout, mashed potatoes and English peas. I lost my first front tooth (it was already loose) from chomping down on an egg roll that my dad insisted I try. Our waiter reported the incident to Mr. Henry (Loo) who immediately appeared at our table with a Tooth Fairy “gift” for me… a beautiful pair of what appeared to be ivory carved chopsticks. I dried my tears, got up from the table, smiled and said thank you to Mr. Henry. I then proceeded to present him with a low bow as I had seen by Chinese actors on TV. My mom almost fainted from embarrassment but Mr. Henry returned the same and then hugged my neck. I’ll never forget that moment! I’m 70 years young now and I still miss that wonderful restaurant and Mr. Loo!!

    1. Eugenia, Thank you so much for your remembrances. There are so many families that hold tightly to fond memories of Joy Young, it’s owners, and employees.

  23. We drove down from Decatur a few times for Sunday lunch at Joy Young. It was the first place I’d ever had Chinese food. You knew when the chicken chow mein came with chocolate milk, you were a kid at Joy Young!
    Mom ordered Cashew Chicken one Sunday lunch – we were astounded to find the dish (covered with a silver dome, of course) garnished with WHOLE cashew nuts! Wow!

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