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What’s in a name? Chink’s finds spotlight uncomfortable

Chink´s was asked to change its name because it can be taken as a racial slur. The sandwich shop bears the original owner´s nickname.
Chink's was asked to change its name because it can be taken as a racial slur. The sandwich shop bears the original owner's nickname. Eric Mencher / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Originally published on Jan. 15, 2004

Unlike Frankford Avenue, which has a longer run in the city - from a close-up view of the Ben Franklin Bridge north to, basically, Bensalem - shorter Torresdale Avenue has never gone very far.

It is sandwiched between Frankford Avenue and I-95, truncated, overlooked and, to most of the world, anonymous, connecting the fading, blue-collar neighborhoods of Wissinoming, Tacony, Holmesburg and, to the north, Torresdale.

They are unaccustomed to attention, quietly going gray, isolated beyond the bright lights.

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  • So it caused more than a little stir last Friday when a Channel 29/Fox News van pulled up to 6030 on the avenue in front of a steak shop called Chink's.

    It has been there since 1949, a shop in amber, its grill strategically set next to the window, the hand-jerked soda fountains, wooden booths, and yellowing "malted shake" signs all original and stubbornly unaltered.

    What had caused the commotion wasn't the discovery of the decor or the unadorned cheesesteaks, which have a cult following. It was the name - Chink's.

    An Asian American woman from West Philadelphia had recently heard the name, found it offensive, and asked the owner to change it.

    News of her complaint and fledgling protest had been reported in the Daily News, which triggered the TV truck, which uncorked the radio talk-show jocks.

    By the time I got to Chink's, Joe Groh, the owner, was looking at a Friday record - a nearly 500-cheesesteak day, roughly 100 more than usual.

    Maybe 30 people can sit in the place at once. But it was jammed with take-out business. Guys in green carpenter's union jackets were in line, and behind them guys wearing Philadelphia prison department patches.

    Groh, who is of Irish-German-Scottish descent, has been there 25 years, ever since he was 16 and had a paper route and passed Chink's steamed-up window each week on his way to collect.

    The Jewish founder, Samuel "Chink" Sherman (so nicknamed, his widow has been quoted as saying, because "he had slanty eyes as a kid"), was still living then and manning the grill.

    "One day I went in and asked for a job," Groh says. "And he said, 'You're the paper guy. You're hired.' "

    Groh didn't change a thing when he took over in 1999. He uses good, warmed rolls from South Philadelphia. He slices the rib-eye himself.

    Sherman, he says, didn't put pizza sauce on his cheesesteaks. So he doesn't. Sherman didn't put on mustard. So he doesn't. No Cheez Whiz. No mushrooms.

    Nothing but fried onions and sliced cheese. To the malted milk shake, his staff will add, on request, a banana.

    At Delia's Gun Shop a few doors down, the regulars were hearing the news a little late.

    Some were curious. Had the complaint come from the "nail people" down the block? No, it hadn't.

    Some were defiant. "I'm gonna sue Burger King," co-owner Joe Delia growled. "I'm Italian. I'm tired of them selling the Whopper."

    Petitions in support of Chink's were on their way to 500 names. Calls were coming from California. Stories were being shared about Sherman, so universally known as Chink that the nickname is chiseled for eternity on his tombstone.

    On an overlooked stretch of Torresdale Avenue, attention, finally, was being paid.

    And while it was, you could not help but notice, on corner after corner, the brave new ventures in the shuttered meat shops and beauty parlors.

    They are the new lights on the weary avenue - places selling Chinese takeout.

    Contact food columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

     

    Rick Nichols Inquirer Food Columnist
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