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Then & Now: The only Chinese restaurant east of the river

Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the DC area, with multiple Chinatowns across the region and a plethora of carryout joints. But a century ago, Chinese food was more of a novelty here.

Hong Kong Restaurant in Congress Heights, once the only Chinese restaurant east of the river. Photo from the collection of Jerry McCoy.

The city's first Chinese restaurants opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1890s, according to local historian John DeFerrari, author of the recently published Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats. He cites a 1903 Washington Times article that described Chinese restaurants as a fad among the city's "smart set," who liked to go "slumming" in DC's small Chinatown at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, now home to the National Gallery of Art.

Within a matter of decades, says DeFerrari, their numbers began to grow. In the 1920s and 1930s, neighborhood Chinese restaurants began appearing all over the city, serving dishes like chow mein and chop suey. Since Chinese restaurants traditionally didn't serve alcohol, they were particularly well-suited to weather the Prohibition era.

But you couldn't find them in every neighborhood. East of the Anacostia River, perhaps the only Chinese joint was the Hong Kong Restaurant at 3109B Nichols Avenue SE in Congress Heights.

It is unclear when the restaurant opened and when it closed, but it was around long enough to appear in a postcard. "Its style as seen in the old postcard is typical of restaurants of the 1930s and 1940s," notes DeFerrari. The address shown says Nichols Avenue, which became Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in the 1970s.

It is within reason to speculate the restaurant was open into the 1950s, before the neighborhood desegregated. During that era, the streetcar ran up and down Nichols Avenue from Anacostia, a white neighborhood, through Hillsdale/Barry Farm, a black neighborhood, to Congress Heights, then a white neighborhood. As the only Chinese joint east of the river, the Hong Kong was likely a destination for many residents there.

3109B Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE today. Photo by the author.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue is home to convenience stores, liquor stores, mobile phone providers, offices for contractors and social services, a car-wash, an athletic footwear store, and a weekly newspaper, along with the well-known Player's Lounge.

Meanwhile, the weather-beaten storefront remains, the restaurant is long gone, replaced today by a dollar store advertising Newport cigarettes for sale and letting customers know that it accepts EBT and food stamps.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Re-elect Barry banner makes this "Unintentionally Ironic Sign of The Day."

by oboe on Oct 3, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know where you can order Chinese food in NE that doesn't consist entirely of "Chicken McNuggets in Syrup" and cheese wontons? The folks who run these places can't possibly eat that crap at home, can they?

by oboe on Oct 3, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

Sounds like an excellent book.

Yi Chen has produced a documentary about elder Chinese-Americans who live at Wah Luck in Chinatown. They have to get on a bus and go out to Fairfax area to shop for Chinese foods.

Chinatown has lost much of its identity but Chinese-Americans have places like in Rockville to gather, or they are assimilated and don't worry too much about the loss of Chinatown downtown.

We need Chinese restaurants - the recipes are way too long!!

by Jay Roberts on Oct 3, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

Oboe, there's always GrubHub, Seamless to order from.

by BTA on Oct 3, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

Forget Seamless, you can't find anyone who will deliver to the "not hip" parts of DC on there. Maybe GrubHub has better options though.

by MLD on Oct 3, 2013 2:07 pm • linkreport

Looks like grubhub delivers to most of NE though its offerings are light across the river. Still better than nada.

by BTA on Oct 3, 2013 2:19 pm • linkreport

A Chinese restaurant that served "Complete American Dinner". I wonder what that looked like.

by Fred on Oct 3, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

I would guess "American Chinese" as opposed to a regional Chinese cuisine.

by Neil Flanagan on Oct 3, 2013 2:30 pm • linkreport

They probably served standard American fare alongside "Chinese" food for people like my father who barely knows what lo mein is.

by BTA on Oct 3, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

Holy Cow!

I've driven by that place before but dismissed it. They have an online menu. And they deliver...

Thanks for the tip!

(Didn't that Days Inn serve as a kind of low-security prison for hundreds of Chinese workers during the construction of the new Chinese embassy a few years ago?)

by oboe on Oct 3, 2013 3:27 pm • linkreport

Usually when people make an argument about how culture is static and rigid my first thought is to ask why then is chicken wings and friend rice such a common menu item that there was a go-go band that would sing about it on the radio?

by drumz on Oct 3, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

I don't know which neighborhood you live in, but in the District, Chinese restaurants are no longer ubiquitous, unless you're talking about greasy carry outs that only serve General Tso's Chicken. Most Chinese restaurants seem to have been replaced by Thai restaurants.

by Andy on Oct 3, 2013 4:31 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't give that stuff to a dog.

by ceefer66 on Oct 3, 2013 5:49 pm • linkreport

The Washington Times was slagging on hipsters before it was cool.

by Kolohe on Oct 3, 2013 7:21 pm • linkreport


by JOHN P MUDD on Oct 4, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

So many of Anacostia's problems can be summed in those three little words: Re-elect Marion Barry.

by Tom on Oct 4, 2013 6:49 pm • linkreport

Hong Kong Resturant in Congress Heights, Mother grew up there 2 blocks away from the Hong Kong, went to Congress Heights Elementary as I did. Ate a great 75 cent dinner there many times.
We lived on Congress Street for 12 years. Two of my current neighbors grew up in Congress Heights.
I knew the Jung/Lee family, Hong Kong owners, Willie & Donald. Worked on Willie's '56 Plymouth & GT Studebaker.
My Brother in law worked there when he was in high school. Across from Bob's Frozen Custard & Grave's Department Store, Liff's DGS, Fire House.
This was the end of the car trolley line. At one time it was a stop over at my Grand Mother's Boarding House if you were going to Southern Maryland.
The San Pan Chinese Resturant was at 621 Pennsylvania Ave SE, DC. By the Avenue Grand Theater, 3 stores from Woolworth, across from Little tavern, one block from current Hawk & Dove, Mr. Henry's (Roberta Flack fame), Zagami's Law Office, Donohue Real Estate, American Security Bank. Katie's number house,,,,bookie in her kitchen. She had a jumbo growth on her neck.
Jim Mothershead, Anacostia High School, class of 1959.

by Jim Mothershead on Nov 6, 2013 8:40 am • linkreport

John Mudd.........also Stevenson's Bakery owned by the Povanelli family. Morton's Clothing. Katz Market. Little Tavern. McQueenie's Shell. Eddie Lenord Sanwich Shop.

by Jim Mothershead on Nov 6, 2013 9:21 am • linkreport

I was born in 1951 and I remember my family used to eat at the Hong Kong quite frequently. It was a step-down restaurant, meaning once you went through the front door, you would step-down about 3 steps and be in the place. There was a separate area off to the left with a large round table where large families or groups could sit and eat. It was mostly booths and I was so small that I remember having to sit on phone books. So, it was definitely there in the '50's. A cherished memory of the good ole days.

by Skip Strobel on Jan 6, 2014 6:27 am • linkreport

This is the first Chinese restaurant I ate at. My mother worked there for a while. We used to get on the roof..playing some sort of strange city hide and seek as I shop next door..and I went to Congress Heights E...the castle!

by Janice Hollifield on Jan 26, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

My grandma lived in Congress Heights and many Sundays after church we would eat at the Hong Kong. This would have been about 1967. I remember the steps down. My parents and grandmother would get chow mein or something like that but my brother and I would always just get a huge bowl of wonton soup!

by Diane Redden on Jul 27, 2014 8:53 pm • linkreport

Between the "we accept EBT" comment by the author and the Marion Barry swipes- it seems like this is just a website for young white "outsiders" to crack racial jokes and old whites who left to talk about the good old days before.......Both groups are not telling the full story.

by free on May 16, 2015 12:14 am • linkreport

Irony is not the Marion Barry poster or the EBT sign. Its the fact that they store saying "we accept EBT" is also asian owned- just like Hong Kong Restaurant. BTW- I am black and ate there as a very young child before my father left and money was too tight to do anything. That didnt matter since all the sit down restaurants left too. Then the groceries.
Asians adjusted and so did we.

by free on May 16, 2015 12:20 am • linkreport

I recall my parents treating my siblings and me to Bob's Frozen lemon custard in the 1970s. Those are great memories for this 51 year old!

by DONITA on Jun 29, 2016 3:50 pm • linkreport

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