Remembering Phil Ahn’s
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.