We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Shing Chung was born in 1933 in a small village in China, and at an early age moved to live with an aunt in Hong Kong. After learning to cook there, he began traveling, and landed a job as a chef in Lebanon. His next stop was Cyprus, where he befriended a fellow Chinese woman who convinced him to visit the United States - she thought he would make a great mate for her niece back in Philadelphia.
Chung expected his U.S. visit to be brief, but the matchmaking aunt proved correct, and instead he fell in love. He and Doris - who'd been born in China but emigrated as a small child - married in the early 1970s. He began cooking at her family's restaurant in Germantown, a place called Sue Fong, and then opened his own small takeout shop nearby.
After their daughter, Sieu, was born, the couple decided to expand. They found a space for lease on 11th Street north of Race, and in 1978 opened Lee How Fook Tea House as one of Chinatown's first dim-sum shops. (Although the name was immortalized the very same year in the Warron Zevon hit "Werewolves of London," the song refers to the beef chow mein from a now-shuttered restaurant in London's Chinatown.)
The dining room was very small, but it was busy enough that Chung found himself spending every waking hour in the basement kitchen - he would arrive at 3 a.m. to get a head start on dumplings for the day. By 1983, he was ready for a change, so he and Doris moved their operation to a larger spot next door, dropping the dim sum in favor of a classic Cantonese menu with a concentration on noodle soups. (As for the original space, the Lai family took it over and opened Vietnam.)
Amid kitschy decor - red walls, vinyl tablecloths, plastic plates, a mirrored ceiling - the new Lee How Fook prospered, and soon a garage behind the kitchen was converted into a second dining room, doubling the available seating. Doris ran the front of the house, and Chung still cooked every day, until he had an aneurysm in 2003.
Deciding it was time to retire, the Chungs turned to their daughter, Sieu. She wasn't interested in leaving her career in software development, but her husband, Andrew Nguyen - a Vietnamese native raised in Montgomeryville - was ready to jump in. Chung stepped away, returning only occasionally to check that his trusted apprentices were still following his recipes. He died in 2007.
On a recent afternoon, Sieu, 42, and Andrew, 46, sat at one of the tables in their inherited dining room, and reflected on their Chinatown experience. The described why they've kept the same (giant) menu for so long, and how they stay busy in an increasingly crowded market. They also laughed about how unprepared they were for the rush on their first Christmas Day.
What does "Lee How Fook" mean?
My father always said it meant "good food for the mouth."
Did you expect to take over your parents' restaurant?
No! When I was a kid, customers would always say to me, "You're going to be running this some day." I would tell them, "No, no way. Absolutely not." I mean, I watched how hard my parents worked - they were always here. It was our life. I did my homework here. We ate dinner here.
Did you work here growing up?
I started as the cashier when I was around 10 or 11. Then I started busing tables, and waitressed on the weekends during high school. I also helped with translation - my mom speaks some English but my father didn't, not really. I went away to Northeastern University for college but after a year I transferred back to Drexel so I could continue to help with that. Still, I had a separate job at a software company - and still do.
When you took over the restaurant in 2003, did you make changes?
Oh, yes. The decor used to be very old-school in here, with plastic mirrors on the ceilings, so we did a big renovation. We also installed a point-of-sale system - it was necessary so Andrew could communicate with the chefs in the back. It prints out tickets in English and Chinese characters, side by side. For the first month, all the servers hated it - they were used to writing down their orders by hand. But they grew to rely on it - when it crashed one time a few months later, they were frantic.
Did you change the menu at all? What are the best-sellers?
We've pretty much had the same menu since we opened. We always say, maybe we should take some things off - there are 300 items - but it seems like whenever we consider removing a slow-selling dish, people start ordering it. All of the recipes are still from my father - they have been passed down, everything is still cooked in his style. Salt-baked squid is one of our signatures. We order over a hundred pounds of squid every week. Some people are scared of it - even people who are used to eating Italian calamari - but once they try it they love it.
Biggest challenges after you took over?
Our first Christmas was a shock. Andrew didn't really know the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and eating Chinese food on Christmas; he didn't realize it would be that busy - we didn't have enough staff on. We didn't sit down once from noon until late that night, it was crazy. When our relatives stopped in to eat, we actually put them to work.
Has Chinatown changed since you were growing up here?
When I was little, there weren't very many restaurants at all. Now we have so many, and tons of bakeries, too. Also it used to be mostly Chinese food, but now you have Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, everything. And now there's a mall, a food court, that's going to open up - it'll be trendy, and attract lots of young people. But we don't worry that much about competition, because we are a family-oriented place, and we rely on regulars. People who grew up coming here with their parents now bring their own kids.
Plans for the future?
The kitchen separates the two dining rooms, so eventually we'd like to move it back and create one bigger room. It will be costly, because all the plumbing and the gas pipes would need to be redone. We lease the building right now, but we're waiting until the time when the landlord is ready to sell. We would also make the walls glass all the way around, and put bright lights around the outside.
219 N. 11th St., 215-925-7266