Gin’s Mee Hong
French Quarter: 739 Conti
New Orleans had a now-forgotten Chinatown in the early 1900s. It was around what is now the corner of Tulane and Loyola Avenues, where the New Orleans Public Library is now. There was also a major Chinese commercial district along Bourbon Street from Bienville to St. Peter at around the same time. Remnants of that lingered into the 1970s, when Bourbon Street had more Chinese restaurants than the whole French Quarter has now.
The best-remembered of those was Gin’s Mee Hong. The menu explained that “mee hong” meant “good taste.” The place was well-named.
But, as usual, what most people remember about Gin’s was a service quirk. If you wanted a drink stronger than tea, you’d order it from a waiter who came in off the street from the Old Absinthe House next door. He was an older man, thin and short, wearing the standard waiter uniform of white shirt, black bow tie, and black pants. He’d take cocktail orders from the whole room and exit via the front door. After a few too many minutes, he’d return with a tray of beverages. There was no connection between Gin’s and the Old Absinthe House; the explanation of why Gin’s wouldn’t or couldn’t serve its own drinks is unknown.
Gin’s dining room was narrow and simply decorated, but there were white tablecloths and lots of china. The Chinese mustard and sweet-and-sour sauce were served in a tiny rectangular, two-compartment dish; it was difficult to obtain more sauce for your fat egg rolls, which you would almost certainly order.
Gin’s food came mostly from the era when Cantonese food reigned over all Chinese menus. No hot and sour soup, moo shu anything, pot stickers, or General Tso’s chicken. The closest thing to a spicy dish was the very good ginger beef, which had quite a bite from the ginger, but no red pepper.
What you ate here was moo goo gai pan–chicken with vegetables in a mild, light sauce. Or its slightly more exotic version, tung goo gai pan, with its black Chinese mushrooms. Everything came out in those stainless-steel pedestal serving dishes for easy sharing, even though the portions were something like half what a typical Chinese restaurant serves these days.
Gin’s was my introduction to Chinese food, in 1971. At that time Mr. Gin himself was still on duty. Even taking into account the distorted perspective of my age (I was twenty), he seemed incredibly ancient, and his Asian aspect made him seem like an old Chinese philosopher. He was just about the last of his generation, one that dominated the business of that part of Bourbon Street for decades.
I don’t know exactly why Gin’s closed, but my guess would be that when tourists took over the Quarter, they didn’t see the point of eating in a Chinese restaurant in a town with so many other local options. (Which is a good point.) There had also been an explosion in the number of other Chinese restaurants around town (there were over a hundred), and the food served by many of the new places was much more exciting than Gin’s old style. But nobody who went there as a regular part of their dining schedule holds it in anything less than high regard.