When I was younger, one of my favorite meals was Chinese food. Occasionally, it would even earn birthday meal status! I grew up on three unique restaurants: Hi Howe, Lim’s, and Pine Yard. Hi Howe was a Sauganash Cantonese favorite on Cicero that featured the Hi Howe Sizzling Platter, Lim’s was a Skokie mom-and-pop-takeout joint on Main Street that served chop suey and egg foo young, and Pine Yard was an Evanston restaurant on Church Street known for its Szechuan and Mandarin dishes, along with moo shu. As time went on, Hi Howe and Lim’s closed down. I never quite found the same Hi Howe sweet and sour chicken or Lim’s beef chow tastes again. I tried local favorites, Joy of the Wok on Dempster, and China Chef on Lincoln (both in Morton Grove), but neither of them could replace the tastes I had come to love. I still had Pine Yard, though. Their dishes were prepared differently, and their styles were distinct, but Pine Yard had plenty of other things going for it. I still missed Hi Howe and Lim’s, but I was at peace knowing that I could still get a few of my Chinese favorites in Evanston.
At some point during my adolescence, something scary happened. Pine Yard’s location on Church Street was going to be part of a major redevelopment initiative and they would need to vacate. This was devastating to my younger self. How would I get my fix for Chinese food? Ugh! Before long, however, my worry proved to be for naught. Pine Yard would move into a Davis Street (roughly one block south) storefront and serve again! Personal culinary disaster averted. As the years progressed, my taste for Pine Yard was bolstered by numerous and repeated visits. Then, something magical happened my senior year of college. I moved off campus into a real dump. A dump that was one (ONE!) block away from the restaurant. This meant I could have Chinese food whenever I wanted!
Now, you might be wondering how a college student could afford to eat out, like, ever. In normal circumstances, that might be a reasonable ponderance. In this situation, however, I was made in the shade, most notably because of two things. First, because I was living in a real dump with five roommates, my “room” costs were minimal, which meant my tuition refund check allowed for ample “board” expenditures. Second, Pine Yard was known for having one of the best lunch specials around. For about eight bucks, you could get a crispy egg roll, a heaping spoonful of vegetable fried rice, a plentiful portion of an entree, a bowl of wonton soup, and a fortune cookie. If you were anyone but me, you might have had enough for two meals. It was a lot of food, and a great deal.
Once I graduated, though, things were going to change, right? Wrong! I went to work for Northwestern as the coordinator of the Undergraduate Leadership Program. This meant my Pine Yard lunches continued! In fact, they continued so regularly that the staff inside knew me and my order, wishing me to enjoy “my favorite lunch” every Friday. Of course, all good things must come to an end. I left my job at Northwestern for grad school in Champaign, and upon completing the program and getting a job at a southside charter school, moved to Printer’s Row. My weekly lunches were over, but the connection in my brain of what I came to understand Chinese food to be was solid as a rock, cemented forever.
I managed to get north from time to time and indulge in the comfort food that was my favorite lunch, but that all changed in 2013. Disaster struck, and Pine Yard closed suddenly. An electrical fire torched the building. My sister and I mourned the loss of a childhood favorite that became an adulthood staple. Without a proper send-off, where the restaurant announces its closing, and you get to visit as much as you can before it closes its doors for good, we were left stunned—craving food we may never have again.
Chicago Tastes Like...
As we read articles about the blaze, we maintained hope that Pine Yard would rise again. It had to! What would we do for Chinese food if it didn’t? Still, despite what we read, we knew it was a real possibility that the restaurant wouldn’t make it back from this. The hospitality business is tough. I don’t know how many spots I’ve seen temporarily shutter with a sign on the door that says “closed for renovation” that never opened again. As the months passed, it became clearer and clearer that Pine Yard would join that list. I’d check online every once in a while, still holding out hope. After a few years, still nothing. What once was a favorite meal was no more. I rarely ate Chinese food. I’d try a place hoping to find a replacement, but it never measured up. I’d emptily remark to my wife, “I could really go for some Chinese tonight,” knowing full well that I’d be out of luck. I needed to move on, but I couldn’t. Ever the persistent character, I remained watchful, yet unhopeful. One day in 2017, after three or four years of searching, I googled “Pine Yard,” expecting to find nothing new. Much to my surprise, however, a link from TripAdvisor popped up. It was titled, “The Owners of Pine Yard Restaurant in Evanston – Mei Lin House…” What. In the heck. Is this?!
I clicked on the link and read the review. Allegedly, the owners of Pine Yard opened up a carryout location in Wilmette. Is this true? I hope it’s true! It can’t be true. Can it?! Why would they call it Mei Lin House? Why isn’t it called Pine Yard? Ugh, why isn’t this more obvious and definitive? Filled with equal parts hope and skepticism, I remembered the original owners had sold Pine Yard about six months prior to the fire. Maybe they couldn’t name their new place Pine Yard. Maybe they sold those rights. Maybe this is what I’ve been looking for! After visiting their website, and checking out their menu, I texted my mom and my sister. Pine Yard might be alive, though with a different name. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to head up there and verify it. What if it wasn’t the same, despite the nearly identical menu? What if they changed things? What if what I loved burned down in that fire? Finally, I had enough. I needed to know. I headed to Wilmette, ordered my favorite lunch, and hoped. Lucky for me, I found what I was looking for. It was a long few years, but I finally got what I craved. I ate that meal with contentment, and an odd feeling of accomplishment. I suppose it’s because I tracked it down, persevering for years. Regardless, in those moments, I was happy. I found my Chinese food.
Some of you might think I’m exaggerating a bit, perhaps being overly dramatic. I’m not, and here’s why: I had been to Pine Yard so many times, from such a young age, that it was Chinese food, and Chinese food was Pine Yard. They were identical, equivalent, and exclusively so. The brain is a funny thing, huh? But I doubt I’m alone in experiencing something like this. Think about something your mom (or dad!) made for you growing up. It might be a meatloaf, or a spaghetti sauce, or an oven-fried chicken breast (all classics from my childhood). Think about a favorite dish from a favorite restaurant—maybe a veal parmesan, or a prime rib. When you try to make one of those dishes yourself, or order it at another restaurant, what happens? Chances are, it falls flat, and you wish you had made something else, or ordered the other dish you were considering. Why? Because your brain associates meatloaf or veal parmesan, not with the general concept of the dish, but with a specific preparation, and when you don’t get that exact and precise preparation, you’re not only left with the craving, you’re disappointed.
I think this phenomenon is pretty common—especially with certain foods. A few years ago, we were at my aunt and uncle’s place eating a deep dish pizza from Pizzeria Due (they lived two blocks away, so carry-out worked great). I grew up on Due’s (for a treat) and Lou Malnati’s (more regularly), so this is what deep dish pizza was supposed to be. My uncle, who grew up out west, wasn’t quite as enthralled. Surprised, I rattled off a few other pizzas, asking if he preferred those. Still, ambivalent, I became nonplussed. He finally told me that the only place that takes care of his pizza cravings is the place he grew up on out West. Now, I’d bet head-to-head, it wouldn’t hold a candle to the pizza we have in Chicago. But for him, that didn’t matter. For him, what he grew up on was pizza, and pizza was what he grew up on. They were identical, equivalent, and exclusively so. When I heard it, I didn’t get it. Incredulous, I dismissed him and his preferences. But as I think about Pine Yard, I realize I was probably a bit unfair because I can relate. Don’t get me wrong. I still think, objectively, our pizza is probably better, but I now realize that subjective preference has little to do with objectivity. It’s why Barnaby’s in Niles for thin crust pizza, Due’s and Lou’s for deep dish, Herm’s Palace in Skokie for hot dogs and fries, Carson’s for baby back ribs, and Pine Yard for Chinese food will always be special to me. I grew up on them. And while my brain was building and strengthening neural connections between terms and tastes, preferences and templates for comparison were being constructed.
Does this mean I can never like another Chinese restaurant, rib joint, pizza place, or hot dog hut? No. It just means that, despite any effort on my part, the places I grew up on likely will be influences on my palate for the rest of my life. They’ll lead me to come back to have a craving satisfied from time to time. They’ll shape and determine new places I might try and like. They’ll comparatively inform my distaste for others. They’ll even motivate me to track down food I never thought I’d taste again. You probably have your places too. It’s only natural. They carry with them so much history, and so many memories. Sure, I can expand my horizons, build new cravings, and form new preferences. I hope I’ve done that. I think I have. I’m sure you have too. But these places I grew up on will always be with me, and that’s okay by me.
A Few More Bites
Header image by Chowhound.