Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Diaz Café


My family and I had a good time this summer traipsing through Southeast Alaska. In Ketchikan, we had lunch at the Diaz Café, a modest eatery situated a short walk from the heavily touristed area where the cruise ships are docked. Despite its relative proximity to these modern-day leviathans, the colorful café evoked pleasant memories of a bygone era. Its laminated 8½- x 14-inch menu offered typical American fare on one side and an eclectic mixture of Asian dishes on the other, including chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo yong. Seeing this old-fashioned triumvirate of Chinese-American cuisine, I became curious as to when the menu was last updated. When our server told us that nothing had changed since the late 1940s, I knew we had struck gold.

It was not as if we had made a new discovery, for Ketchikan is a well-marked destination. Nestled in a ten-block-wide strip of land at the base of an island, this rainy town of 13,000 can receive almost as many visitors on a busy day. Still, the restaurant appears to be mostly patronized by residents. And unlike many of the small shops in town, the Diaz Café is not quietly owned by one of the cruise ship companies. Its long-time proprietor is Clara Diaz, daughter-in-law of the original owners who opened a restaurant in Juneau in the 1930s, before relocating to Ketchikan where their café became an integral part of the local Filipino community. (The “Alaskeros,” as they called themselves, came to work in Ketchikan’s booming fish canneries in the 1920s, when US laws began to restrict the number of Chinese and Japanese immigrants.)
Clara Diaz, 2015

Given the background, we decided to go for some of the classic Filipino specialties like chicken adobo. Almost considered a national dish in the Philippines, it is typically prepared by marinating chicken pieces in soy sauce, white vinegar, crushed garlic cloves, black pepper, and bay leaves for about three hours, before simmering in a covered pot for an hour. 

Thinking about my recent post West Meets East, we were tempted to get the chop suey, but couldnt resist the pancit bihon (spelled “bijon” on the above menu.)1 This Chinese-Filipino noodle dish comprises rice vermicelli simply seasoned with citrus and fish sauce. We ordered ours with shrimp. Interestingly, the early history of chop suey and pancit bihon is similar in that overseas Chinese communities introduced these dishes in countries that adopted them into their national cuisine. Later however, their paths have diverged. While the popularity of chop suey has declined precipitously in recent decades, pancit bihon remains a mainstay in the Philippines, and is even gaining a following in the United States, where dogmatic foodies regard it as an authentic regional dish. 

1. The term “pancit,” meaning “convenient food,” is derived from Hokkien, a dialect that originated in the province of Fujian on the southeast coast of China. Pancit is now used as a catch-all word for many types of Filipino noodles, with pancit bihon being the most common rice noodle dish.


Paul Freedman said...

Looks like a wonderful vacation!

Ship Menus said...

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