Family, love and Midwestern chow mein

Published in August 2017 by Prior Lake American

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Helen Fong stepped off the plane, into the snowy white Minnesota winter, and realized she couldn’t walk. It was December 1956 and the first time Helen had ever seen snow, much less trekked through it in heels.

Until that moment, “winter” had been more of an abstract concept for the young woman, born and raised in the subtropical Canton province of China before immigrating to Los Angeles as a 13-year-old.

But a handsome young man was waiting to meet her across the tarmac, so she had no choice but to slip and slide her way through the frozen drifts toward David Fong, Sr. and — little did she know — more than 60 years of marriage, six children, 13 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, two houses, and four family restaurants in Prior Lake, Savage and Bloomington.

She and David Sr. sat at a table in the newest of these restaurants — their son David Jr.’s — on a drizzly Thursday afternoon, caught gales of laughter as they recalled that first winter and the whirlwind beginnings of their family legacy in Twin Cities’ southwest suburbs.

“I don’t think we knew that much” starting out, Helen said.

“We knew a lot of good people, and they helped me and gave me an idea of helping, too,” David Sr. added, halfway into his second mug of coffee.

The young couple had met two years previously on a blind date in L.A., but were separated just a week later, when the Army stationed David Sr. in another state. They exchanged letters as he bounced about the country, until she took up an invitation to spend Christmas with his family in Minnesota and decided to stay.

They married the following July and within a year, had their first son and a minuscule take-out restaurant in Bloomington. They found the spot by accident after overshooting a prospective site in Richfield. But it was the right size (small) and price (cheap), so they signed a lease within two days and opened the restaurant in two months.

Given the small kitchen, the couple kept the menu tight and focused on Chinese-American favorites developed in David Sr.’s father’s restaurant, Moy’s Café, in Minneapolis. David Sr. first encountered the restaurant business there at 14 years old, after joining his father in the wake of World War II.

Many were skeptical of the young couple’s determination to open a restaurant in such a sparsely populated area. But the Fongs wanted to be in a town that could grow with their business, they said.

And that’s exactly what happened — through cartons upon cartons of fried rice, egg foo young and chow mein — a Chinese-American comfort food based on ground pork and celery that can be difficult to find outside the Midwest.

The Fongs are among a few restaurants still serving the classic dish and shipping it frozen across the country to homesick Minnesotans.

“It’s more home-cooking than classic restaurant food,” and people who grow up on it can miss it keenly after moving away, said Ed Fong, owner of David Fong’s Chinese Restaurant in Bloomington and the eldest of the six Fong children.

He was just a month old when the original takeout restaurant opened, and remembers playing with pots and pans and lids on the floor as his parents worked — though he was usually entrusted to his grandmother.

Helen usually drove to the restaurant at 6 a.m. to prepare for the day. She’d return home around 9 a.m. so David Sr. could take the car back to the restaurant to open up. Meanwhile, Helen took Ed (and, later, Don, Amy, Barbara, Cindy, and David Jr.) to her mother’s, before rejoining her husband at the restaurant.

“When you’re young, you can do it,” Helen said. “It’s not easy.”

The carryout was successful, but the Fongs wanted room to grow and set their sights on a larger location where they could expand the menu and offer a full dinner service.

The result of that dream, David Fong’s Restaurant and Bar, opened in Bloomington in 1966. It was the first restaurant of its kind in the growing suburb, and one of few upscale dining establishments with white linen tablecloths and elegant serving ware.

David Sr., who trained as a draftsman before opening a restaurant, designed the building himself, selecting the distinctive red and black color scheme and working out the “FONG’S” logo.

Meanwhile, Helen set the menu and developed recipes alongside the restaurant’s new head chef, a cousin of David Sr.’s from New York City. The carry-out’s original three dishes remained, with little to no changes, but were soon joined by specialties like Chinatown-style New York cut steak, seasoned with oyster sauce and served with Chinese vegetables, and the bacon-wrapped shrimp Hong Kong.

“She would try dishes on us. Like bacon-wrapped shrimp, then all of the sudden we have shrimp Hong Kong” on the menu, Ed said. Fried chicken wings were another at-home favorite of the Fong children that found their way onto the menu, even though they weren’t as common in restaurants as they are now.

The menu was thoroughly Chinese-American, and patrons could find Midwestern standbys — like french fries, pork cutlet sandwiches and steak — alongside steaming platters of fried rice, sweet and sour chicken and shrimp almond ding.

The combination was a hit and the Fongs continued building up a clientele that remains devoted today. Many regulars at each of the restaurants started going to the original Bloomington location as children. Now some of the children the Fongs helped into high chairs are bringing their own kids to the restaurants, they said.

Even when the Fong children were too young to work there, the restaurant was an important part of the their lives.

The Fongs’ oldest daughter, Amy Fong, remembers selling Girl Scout cookies to the staff with her sister, Barbara. Lots of Girl Scout cookies. Many of the restaurant’s employees had been there for a long time and knew the children well — their school activities, hobbies and aspirations.

“It’s really like a family … they knew all of us,” said Amy, who works part-time at D. Fong’s in Savage, making sauces and running the front of the house during lunch.

David Jr., the youngest son, remembers visiting the restaurant and eating piles of french fries as a treat, and wrapping himself up in a homemade body cast using leftover accounting tape after Helen did the accounts.

Lunch for the Fongs often fell around 2 or 3 p.m., with family dinners later in the evening, around 7 or 8 p.m. “because that’s when dad got home after feeding everyone else dinner at the restaurant,” David Jr. said.

“I always thought it odd that people ate so early. I didn’t realize those were normal dining times until I hit my late teens or early 20s,” he said.

The timing was also connected to the fact that the children were older, joining sports teams and beginning to work in the restaurant themselves — which all of them did, starting from the bottom and working their way into different positions as a need arose.

Ed Fong’s first job was cleaning out the inside of the dumpster. David Jr. entered the business picking cigarette butts and weeds out of the parking lot.

“Your hands would just be black” he remembers, especially after someone emptied their car’s entire ashtray in a pile by their parking space.

But cleanliness is one of the keys to running any successful business, especially a restaurant, David Sr. said. And that includes the parking lot.

Good food is also a key component. And just as important, supporting the community, he said.

Giving back to the communities is something all of David Sr. and Helen’s children emphasize when asked about their businesses and what their learned from their parents.

“My dad always said that you have to support the community that supports you. Give and you shall receive,” David Jr. said.

Cindy, who opened Fong’s Restaurant and Bar in Prior Lake with her husband, Leo Le, in 1995, remembers being overwhelmed with community support for the restaurant. Even with family members — including Helen — helping out, the response was still far greater than the couple expected. Cindy and Leo had to sleep in the restaurant a few nights when they didn’t have time to go home. They ran out of food at one point and couldn’t take a day off for five months.

“We were worried to death. This was everything. All we had,” Cindy said. “But, this town is just wonderful… the community has just been so wonderful”

The Fong family name on the restaurant helped, the Les said. They didn’t originally plan to use it, but a banker who worked with the Fong family for years insisted.

“Thank goodness he did,” Cindy said.

When David Jr. opened his restaurant in Savage a couple years later — just takeout at the time — the family came together again to help, and the community again responded.

Both of the restaurants started small, with a similar selection of Chinese-American dishes drawn from the recipes of the original Fongs, but both have continued to grow.

The Prior Lake restaurant expanded the dining room, added a full-service bar and, eventually, and event center. The Savage restaurant started as carry-out only, but added a dining room in 1998. Ed, Cindy, Leo and David Jr. have remained involved in their communities and still come together to support each other at events as well as family celebrations.

Thanksgivings with the Fong family are huge, usually drawing 30 to 40 people to the house where Helen and David Sr. raised their family, now owned by Ed. The family usually goes through a couple of 10-pound prime ribs, two to three turkeys, and platters of vegetables, potatoes, desserts, and traditional Chinese dishes.

They also reconvene for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Christmas, Chinese New Year, and whenever Helen cooks up something special in the kitchen of her Prior Lake home.

“She loves cooking. She knows all the kids’ favorite food, and all the grandkids’ favorite foods” like siu mai dumplings for Cindy’s son, Cameron, pork buns for David Jr.’s daughter, Elizabeth, and prime rib for Don’s son, Bobby, David Sr. said. “She cooks all the time. That is her hobby. She’s feeding everybody.”

The food is then packaged, labeled, and picked up by children or delivered to grandchildren.

“They’re all good kids. You have to be really committed to the restaurant business. They all work hard,” Helen said.