Every few months my co-worker Catherine Lee invites a group of us to gather at Dragon City, her family’s restaurant at 4301 East Lake Street in Minneapolis. We went last Wednesday and had a great time, as usual.
Dragon City is a classic old-school Chinese-American restaurant — the kind my parents took me to in the ’50s and ’60s. The setting is unpretentious, the food is good, the portions are big, and “Chow Mein” dominates the sign out front. My Mom and Dad never ventured outside of the chow mein and egg foo young page of a menu, unfortunately, so I didn’t learn about how vegetables can be deliciously crunchy or how sauces could be spicy until later in life. This place has both kinds of food, so my parents and I could have dined here together and all liked it.
Catherine’s parents, Daniel and Donna Fong, opened the restaurant 33 years ago in what was the office of a lumber yard. They had immigrated, along with 7 of their 8 children (Catherine is the youngest and the only one born in the U.S.) from Hong Kong, where they had lived for several years after escaping from Communist China. Mom and Dad (and the older children) worked and the Nankin Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, a famous and highly regarded Twin Cities landmark, before taking the risk of opening a place of their own.
It’s always been a purely family business. They’ve hired very few people over the years. Dad used to do most of the cooking, but now that he’s gone, they’ve hired someone to cook. Catherine says that it’s not always easy for her sisters and her to keep it going. They put in a lot of hours just to keep the restaurant afloat, but they couldn’t make it if they had to pay salaries for all the help.
Nobody really wants to let go of the place yet, though. Donna still lives upstairs, where she raised the family. The income from the restaurant provided a good life for her children. She and Daniel were able to support their family in a way that we all hope to. This place means everything to her. Catherine tells me the kids will keep it going as long as Mom wants. There are too many memories here for everyone, but especially for Donna Fong. This building is her version of the American dream and represents everything she’s done as a parent. We all should have such a place to call home.
So if you’re in the neighborhood, stop in, take a look at the photos, have some Kung Pao or some chow mein — or maybe “Cathy’s Special” — and remember how much this place means to this family and to our community. And maybe start noticing these kinds of family restaurants, run by immigrants, that we drive by in every city of our country without giving them a thought. Let’s hope they all hang on for a while longer.
Here’s to you, Donna and Daniel Fong.