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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