I hate to see old buildings torn down — especially this one.

On Thursday and Friday, they tore down what was left of the building that used to house Heidi’s Restaurant, the Blackbird Cafe and the Patina and Shoppe Local gift stores. Now there’s just a big hole.

Big hole where some terrific neighborhood businesses used to be (photo by Steve Date)

On my way home from work on February 18th, I heard on the radio that there was a fire at a popular restaurant and surrounding businesses in my neighborhood. The odor hit me when I was still a couple of miles away. It was a sickly smell of things that shouldn’t be burning.

The front facade of the brick building was still standing after the fire trucks left. While we knew the insides of all the businesses were lost, most of us hoped that the building’s front and side walls could be saved and that the restaurants and stores could eventually move back in to their old spaces. Even when the Blackbird announced a couple of months ago that it would reopen at a new location on 38th and Nicollet, I still held onto some hope that the building could be reused.

But it was apparently too far gone.

Firefighters try to save Heidi's and the Blackbird (photo by Kate NG Sommers for Heavy Table)

From a similar vantage point yesterday (photo by Steve Date)

The fire was a blow to the Minneapolis restaurant scene. Heidi’s had developed a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the Twin Cities and The Blackbird was a wonderful neighborhood place that was full of tender loving care and served fantastic food.

But the loss of this block was like a death in the family to the people in the neighborhood. The building itself was not architecturally noteworthy, but it represented one of the little neighborhood business corners that developed in the early 20th century along the old street car lines in the Twin Cities. James Lileks of the StarTribune wrote a nice, nostalgic column about the building shortly after the fire. It was, he wrote, “… a building full of secret stories, the sort of place you only find in places that have been inhabited for a hundred years or so. The one we lost was just a one-story brick block. We have many. We have spares. So?
Well, it was ours.”

The corner occupied by the Patina gift store was originally a drug store. It has gone through several incarnations and was an antique store before Patina bought it and began the transformation of the block. Over the past two decades this block had turned into a truly great urban residential small business area. The neighborhood was thankful it was there — and proud of it.

Firefighters worked all afternoon trying to stop the fire (Photo by Kate NG Sommers for Heavy Table)

From a similar angle this weekend. The Malt Shop next door escaped damage (photo by Steve Date)

I held out hope that something of the old building could be saved. I had heard in recent weeks that they were going to have to tear it down, but I didn’t want to believe it until I ran by on Friday and the big hole took me by surprise.

I’m still hoping that some of the businesses rebuild there and I hope the new building looks good and fits into the neighborhood.

Of course, life goes on and “things fall apart”. But the big hole makes me sad, because you can’t build an old building.

I used a couple of photos by Kate NG Sommers who did some great reporting and photography for Heavy Table during and after the fire. Please read her stories and look at the other fantastic photos she shot.

My daughter, Lauren, also did a nice blog post about it right after the fire.

Dragon City – The Fong’s American dream lives on Lake Street

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, USA

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 with her Mom, Donna and sister, Emily

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.

Donna Fong with 7 of her children in the 1960s hangs with many other photos on a wall of the restaurant

Catherine's sister Bonnie tells me about photos on the wall. When their father was alive, he covered the entire wall with pictures of family, friends and customers. Since he died about 5 years ago, they've scaled it back. Other sisters are Emily (tie dyed shirt) and Bonnie (at the cash register)

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.

My Andersen teacher friends enjoyed our recent visit.

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.

Don't know if this thing still works, but I love it.

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.