If you’re like me, your family’s Christmas traditions were pretty predictable.
After a week of exhaustive cookie-baking and present-wrapping, we’d sit down to a meal that was nearly identical to the previous year’s feast. Since we are Slovak, we knew we could count on pierogi, bobalky, “Christmas Eve” sour mushroom soup, baked ham, and the sentimental favorite, a red and green Jell-O salad.
My midnight mass-attending family would not have entertained eating Chinese food on Christmas, though it would have saved us girls a lot of dish-drying. It turns out, though, that these days more and more people go out for Chinese food at Christmas.
“Christmas Day is the busiest. There is a line starting at 10:30am that lasts into the afternoon,” said Ed Hom, longtime manager of Li Wah, an anchor of Cleveland’s Asia Town neighborhood. “My brother and I come here very early in the morning. My kids work. My wife works. All the nieces and nephews work.”
Li Wah and sister restaurants King Wah, in Rocky River, and Ho Wah, in Beachwood, have seen their Christmastime popularity increase in the past several years. The trio of restaurants was started by the family’s matriarch, Donna Hom, and two of her four sons are active in the business.
Randy Hom, Ed’s brother, operates King Wah in Rocky River. “Christmas Day is a remarkable scene. We’re booked solid and it’s very fun,” he said, commenting that many families come every year, gifts in tow, ready to relax and enjoy each other’s company.
Asian restaurants have always been a welcome sight for people who don’t celebrate the holiday, explained Andy Ng, who operates Ice or Rice, an Asian food website. “This is typically associated with the Jewish people and goes as far back as almost 200 years ago, when the largest non-Christian immigrant populations of Jewish and Chinese lived in close proximity to each other in Manhattan. Chinese restaurants would still be open and offer communities a place to eat and socialize. In fact, I used to work at a Kosher Chinese restaurant, and Christmas was the busiest day of the year for us.”
“We go to Chinese restaurants and movie theaters at Christmas because they’re the only places open. But after doing it for over a decade, seeking out Chinese food on Christmas Day seems as fitting as turkey on Thanksgiving,” said Jessa Hochman of Bentleyville. “Our family has begun to incorporate Chinese food into our Hanukkah menu. It seemed totally natural, because it signifies the holiday season to us in a fun way,” she added.
It appears the rest of us have caught on, shedding obligatory traditions and commemorating the holidays in new ways. Regardless of the reason for your choice, Asian restaurants will welcome you with open arms, where a traditional holiday meal might mean dining on whole roast duck and dim sum.
Li Wah, a sprawling restaurant with colorful décor and crisp white tablecloths located inside Asia Plaza, has long been known for its dim sum, a sweet and savory collection of small dishes served early in the day, until 3pm.
Translated, dim sum means “touch the heart.” It’s a style of eating that is all about sharing—especially fitting for the holidays. Catching up with family is relaxed and easy over endless cups of fragrant tea, awaiting a visit from the dim sum carts that deliver airy steamed buns, chewy filled dumplings, and a host of crepes, cakes, and meaty bites.
Ed lives and breathes the operations of the restaurant, which is open 365 days a year. His role, he said, is to make sure customers are taken care of in every way, which includes supporting the experience of unfamiliar guests. Ed’s strictly business demeanor cracks, just a little, when he speaks of the repeat customers who have made a visit to Li Wah a family tradition.
“That’s the reason why I never left the restaurant business. I get to know one generation, the second generation, third generation…I see their entire history unwind.”
The Chinese food/Christmas connection may be a little stronger for Clevelanders who have a soft spot for the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story. Partially shot in Cleveland, it includes scenes from the now-closed Higbee’s department store, and a home that still sits at 3159 West 11th Street in Tremont where it is a popular tourist attraction.
In the movie, the Parker family finds itself at Chop Suey Palace on Christmas Day, where they order “Chinese turkey.” The film depicts some hilarious family moments to be sure, but it also contains racial stereotypes, and many of the Chinese restaurant scenes feel outdated and cringingly unacceptable.
“If anything, the movie has probably helped, maybe prompting people to think of us,” Randy said. Speaking about King Wah, he said, “We’ve been open for 47 years. We never imagined that we’d be as busy as Ho Wah, our restaurant in Beachwood. But in the last few years, that’s exactly what’s happened.”
If a break in tradition sounds good to you, make your reservations now to dine on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at any of the Hom family’s restaurants. And, if you go, Ed recommends venturing out of your comfort zone. “Don’t be afraid to try authentic Chinese dishes,” he said. But if you prefer “American Chinese” options like General Tso’s chicken, chop suey, and egg fu young, they’re ready for you.