That Food Guy
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
 
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Remembering Phil Ahn’s
Moongate Reataurant

A prominent feature of Van Nuys Boulevard in Panorama City in the 1950s
60’s and 70s was Phil Ahn’s Moongate restaurant. The restaurant was the creation of a noted Korean actor, Phil Ahn. He was the one we loved to hate when he portrayed diabolical Japanese soldiers in World War II movies and then learned to love him when he portrayed Master Kan, the Shaolin monk who often challenged the young Kwai Chang Caine to snatch the pebble from his hand. It was a favorite spot to go, back then, at least once a month if not twice. The Moongate was across the Valley from the Ventura Boulevard crowd but it wasn’t surprising to see familiar faces from the movies and television. I think I only saw Phil Ahn once, maybe twice over the years. But his sister, Soorah seemed to always be there.

The first time we, my friend Bill and I, went to the Moongate, Soorah greeted us at the door. She bid welcome and thanked us for coming to their restaurant. Although I don’t remember the exact words, it was clear that she knew that were first time visitors. With a sweep of her hand she asked us where we wanted to sit. The bar was to the right, a lower floor in the middle was one dining area and then, to the north side of the building, was a slightly raised floor next to the waterfall wall. The glisten of the gently cascading water was intriguing and we pointed that way. Soorah seated us at a table next to the locally famous waterfall.

My first memories of Chinese food was as a young child when our family often dined in Los Angeles’s China Town, more than an hour’s drive away. Those memories established my expectation of what Chinese food should be. There was the anticipation that built during the long drive. And then there was Chinatown itself. Garish red neon, dragons gargoyles peering down from the eaves, the buildings that mimicked the Great Wall of China, the plaza with the carp pond, the thousands of coins in the wishing well, the smell of cedar, sandalwood, smoky incense, shops with silks, black lacquered wood, brass and trinkets and a thousand other exotic sights and smells. I remember walking the courtyard with our parents to look at each of the menus posted next to the door. Once we had chosen a restaurant we went inside to eat. Red and black were the predominate colors with gold accents. The hostess usually wore a long dress that had a high collar and a long slit on one side. The waiters never seemed to speak English except for, “Numbah two dinner ,” (Though I have often suspected they were collage kids with impeccable English skills who played their parts well.) and they wore tuxedos and had little towels draped across a forearm. The waiters served the food with 2 large spoons, used like fat chopsticks, from the pedestaled serving bowls. It was all so good – the ambiance, the sweet and sour, the crunch of crisp chow mein noodles, the savory sauces, and as kids, not to mention the fortune cookies and the almond cookies. The sights, the smells, the exotica all around and then there was the food itself, It was a total experience. It was a defining moment and we learned what (Americanized) Chinese food should be.

The food at the Moongate never failed to satisfy those expectations. I had favorites but I tried, over time, to sample most of the dishes offered in their extensive menu. I was always pleasantly satisfied. The memories of the food at the Moongate reinforced my conceptions about Chinese food, the colors, the aromas and the taste. To this day I judge new Chinese food encounters by what I remember of China Town and The Moongate. The fare at Chinatown restaurants and the Moongate set high standards, standards most others cannot meet. The Moongate has helped to make me a tough critic.

After my first visit to the Moongate, I didn’t return for several months. Back then weekly nights out for dinner were for seeking out new dining experiences far and wide. Southern California was growing and there was always something new. When we did go back for a second visit to the Moongate, probably to satisfy a craving for Chinese food, there was Soorah waiting patiently at the door to greet us. She welcomed us back, “So good to see you again.” She led us to a table next to the waterfall wall. She seemed to have remembered were we sat on our first visit. Each and every visit after we were greeted as returning guests, and space permitting, were shown to our preferred seating next to the waterfall. Beside the good food, Soorah’s penchant for recognizing and remembering faces has become one of my favorite stories to tell about the Moongate.

The Moongate was one of the first Chinese food restaurants in the San Fernando Valley. It lasted for over 30 years before closing in the 1980’s. For the average work-a-day Joe, being greeted at the door like a celebrity, taken to your preferred seating and then treated to an excellent meal all made you feel important. It was if you had been invited into the Ahn home and treated like an honored guest. I would hazard a guess that the closing was inevitable. The inimitable character of the restaurant was a reflection of Phil and Soorah Ahn. With their passing there was no one who was able to adequately continue those traditions. Although there is sadness in the knowledge that Phil and Soorah are gone and the Moongate has long since closed, there is a satisfaction that for a brief period I was a small part of the best Chinese restaurant in the Valley.
 
Comments:
My parents used to go every other week. Soorah greeted them with such great warmth. It was like being one of the family. When they'd brig us kids along, Soorah ALWAYS made a big deal and led us to the table with the big wicker chair. I remember feeling like the king when I sat in that chair. Thanks for posting this. It's good to take a stroll down memory lane.
 
Just FYI...I am Phil and Soorah's nephew. She is still living. Just celebrated her 94th a few weeks ago. Ralph and Susie also still alive. Thought you might like to know...
 
I am Phil and Soorah's nephew. Soorah still living, 94 years young. Ralph and Susie also still alive. Thought you might like to know...
 
Dear Soorah's nephew,

My brother and I were thrilled to hear that your aunt Soorah is still alive. She was married to our great uncle Ray (Charles Raymond) Buffum. We have been researching our great uncle and his scriptwriting career, I live in Los Angeles and we were trying to find Ray's grave (now know that it is in Tonapah not Burbank), and discovered his marriage to Soorah Ahn. Would love to hear from anyone in the family who would like to share memories of our great Uncle whom we never knew. Best wishes, Cynthia (and William) Whitham, grandchildren of Bertha Buffum Whitham
 
Dear Phil, I hope you check back and find the comment from long lost famiy. It is nice to know we were able to be of service. Best wishes to all of you.
Larry, That Food Guy
 
Thank you, Larry. So appreciate your reaching out to Phil for us.

Phil, if anyone wants to get in touch, I can be found on Facebook -- Cynthia Whitham
 

Dear Phil and Soora's nephew. I recently read Susan Ahn's "Willow Tree Shade".The writer name was John Cha. I loved the story of her and her family. I felt like a traveling early 20 century when I reading a book. Especially, pictures are really evidences that I felt like I stayed with them. You will proud of being one of the his family members because Do San was the greatest person in Korean history. I also realize that she was married to Ray Buffum was true too. It was honor to know a lot of real stories. Please say thank you all your family members and God bless you.

 
Dear Pointzero...Thank you for your kind words about our family. You must be Korean since you knew about Dosan. I just started a Facebook page about the family you might enjoy: https://www.facebook.com/TheAhnFamilyArchives
Thank you. Wes Ahn (Larry, I hope you are OK with this. There are some new MG things I put on that might bring back some memories.)
 
Sure Dosan Ahn Chang Ho is a selfless leader during most painful time in Korean history. Dosan stood against heinous Japanese rulers and became an integral part of the provisional Korean government in China until Korea was liberated in 1945 as Japanese surrendered to the U.S. I also read Williow Tree Shade, the Susan Ahn story, and learned a lot about Dosan's family.

I am sure it was very difficult for Dosan's family without man of the house during the time. I time to time wondered if his children realize how proud we all are. I am an American of Korean heritage, live in Atlanta,Georgia.
 
I never went inside, but one day I was passing by and saw Dick Van Dyke making in front. They were making probably a TV show and did a scene two or three times where a Chinese looking man was pulling Dick, who was seated in a Rickshaw. Always the restaurant was in the background of the shot, probably trying to pass Dick off as being somewhere overseas.

Then in the final scene they filmed, Dick was simulating pulling the Rickshaw, and the Chinese man was sitting in the Rickshaw.
 
Thank you for stopping by. The Moon Gate was a landmark and most everyone I know from back then has good memories of the restaurant, Phil and Soora, the good food and the pleasant times inside. I wish you would have been able to share the inside with us as well. Thank you for the remembrance. Now all I have to do is find that Dick Van Dyke footage to see what that was all about...

Thanks again, Larry, that food guy
 
Us coaches at different schools would meet after work,at the Moongate, especially when Ralph Ahn would bartend after coaching at Alemany. Sue and Sara always treated us great. Phil would stop by when not acting. Great memories!
 
Us coaches at different schools would meet after work,at the Moongate, especially when Ralph Ahn would bartend after coaching at Alemany. Sue and Sara always treated us great. Phil would stop by when not acting. Great memories!
 
Us coaches at different schools would meet after work,at the Moongate, especially when Ralph Ahn would bartend after coaching at Alemany. Sue and Sara always treated us great. Phil would stop by when not acting. Great memories!
 
Thank you Jim for sharing with us. Not surprisingly the comments we get from people are often are good, warm memories of a place and time long, long ago. The Moongate was a place where you always felt comfortable and welcome. Thanks again for sharing. Larry, that food guy...
 
Growing up in the SFV in the 50s and 60s, I have many happy memories of dining at the Moon Gate with my folks. Wonderful people and fantastic food served in a warm atmosphere. I was so very sorry to hear that it closed down. It's truly missed.
 
My dad had a women's clothing store on Van Nuys called MarLee's back in the 50's & early 60's. We used to go to The Moodgate all the time. I even have an autographed picture of Phil Ahn. Dad used to take our pressure cooker and fill it up with their wor wonton soup. The food was great.
 
Thank you for stopping by and sharing your memories of the Moon Gate. Your photo is worth some money today - a great keepsake. I wish I had a bowl of that won ton right now. Thanks again for stopping by and just think, we could have had dinner one day at the same tine and never knew it. Best wishes, Larry, That Food Guy
 
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