Back to town Giving a voice to the people of Birmingham and Alabama.
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Birmingham is a great place for food lovers.
We have great restaurants…such as Highland Bar & Grill, El Barrio, Automatic Seafood and Helen.
There have been other great restaurants past or present, but in my heart and stomach, no one compares to a Chinese American restaurant that opened in 1919 and has been operating successfully mostly in downtown Birmingham for nearly 70 years.
The name of the restaurant was Joy Young and I had hundreds of meals there in my youth and youth years.
According to BhamWiki‘In October 1925 the restaurant moved to 412 20th Street North opposite the Tutwiler Hotel, and soon expanded into the former store next door. Mansion Joe’s owner and manager Henry Loo had developed a reputation as friendly and generous businessmen, sometimes helping to provide meals to those in need. This reputation served them with this reputation. well as the Ku Klux Klan found no support from the public in the effort to get the restaurant out of business.”
Growing up in the 1950s, our family often ate at Joy Young on Sundays and special occasions. Surely when a family from out of town came to town, we gathered there.
It uniquely featured American and Chinese food. And although I loved Chinese, I usually order half a serving of fried chicken. To this day, it is the best fried chicken I have ever tasted. I ordered my dinner with a cocktail of shrimp, potatoes, English peas, a yeast roll and a slice of caramel pie for dessert. Believe it or not, shrimp and pancake were included in the price. Many customers loved the homemade almond cookies.
My family lived on the south side of Birmingham and when I was old enough to ride the bus myself I took bus #12 Highland Avenue downtown to meet my friends. We’d go to Joy Young for lunch and then to a movie at Alabama, the Ritz, Melba or the Empire Theatre.
One summer, a close friend invited a visitor from out of town to have lunch with us at Joy Young. We always walked up the stairs to the balcony because the booths on the balcony had curtains that give us some privacy. The waiter immediately placed a plate of large thin yeast rolls on the table. The visitor had not visited a Chinese-American restaurant and did not understand its dynamics. There was always a big bowl of hot mustard on the table available for Chinese food. My friend told his guest that hot mustard is a particularly delicious butter. The unsuspecting visitor grabbed a warm roll, put hot mustard on it and took a big bite. I can still hear his screams.
While I was in high school I worked downtown on weekends at my father’s job. We 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 would pick Breitling Cafeteria. But sometimes I managed to convince someone to eat at Joy Young.
In later years when my wife and I had young children, we would often go to Joy Young’s and eat on the balcony at one of the private stalls. Once our kids snuck out of the kiosk and started dropping food on the restaurants 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 egg rolls and the “mandarin special” – chicken chow mein, fu yong eggs, and rice. I don’t remember how much I paid for the egg roll, but the Mandarin Special at the time was 89 cents.
According to BhamWikiJoy Young closed its downtown location in the mid-1980s. Third generation owner Henry Jo reopened at Brookwood Showroom, a ground floor retail segment of the Brookwood Medical Center parking deck where it had operated for several more years. Joy Young ended her life as a store to sell ready-made egg rolls in Pelham.
Today when I crave a Joy Young egg roll and ‘Mandarin Special’, I pick it up at the Chop Suey Inn on Green Springs Avenue in Homewood. Egg rolls are very similar to Joy Young’s meals of my youth and what was formerly Joy Young’s “Mandarin Special” is listed on Chop Suey Inn’s menu as an “anytime special”.
David Sher is founder and publisher Back to town. He was past president of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and City Action Partnership (CAP).
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