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Fusion, Tradition, and Family: Thirty Years In with Ronald Cheng of Chinatown

Ronald Cheng's fine dining Chinese restaurant, Chinatown, is celebrating thirty years in business in Austin this year. Cheng started out working in his mother's Chinese restaurant on Burnet Road, and has a long and storied history with the Austin dining scene. Cheng spoke with Eater about his many concepts over the years (El Chino's, anyone?), his advice for those going into the restaurant industry, and what's next for Chinatown. His daughter Ashley Cheng, who is on the board of Slow Food Austin and occasional Eater contributor, joined the conversation as well.

Could you share a bit about your history in the Austin restaurant scene?

Ronald: My mother opened the third-ever Chinese restaurant in Austin . We are the oldest Chinese restaurant family in the city of Austin, and this location is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Austin.

You've had this restaurant for thirty years?

Ronald: I have had this one for twenty-seven years, but the Chinatown name is thirty years old this year. My mom opened her restaurant up in January of 1970. She brought us to the United States for education, and because America is the land of opportunity. We opened up a gift shop/grocery store. After two months, my mother ran out of money.

Ashley: I heard stories growing up that when he came over here, he'd heard in Taiwan that America was such a land of opportunity that you can literally pickup gold on the street.

Ronald: I thought you could just bend over and pick up money. And I came not speaking any English. I didn't know my alphabet, was just "ABCDEFG." My sister at least knew the whole alphabet.

We came in in September 28, 1969. Into the Mueller airport. By January, my mother had no funds left. She had just enough to pay rent. The gift shop was a house on Burnet Road, so we moved out of our bedroom into a smaller bedroom with a half bath. My sister lived in the closet.

We opened up a restaurant with five tables. My mother cooked on a home stove. We had to wait until all the customers left before we could take a shower, because the only shower was in the dining room. Back then there was no health department whatsoever.

We started with five tables and that's how we grew. At the peak of my time, with all the family members, we sat over 1000 people in all our restaurants.

Ashley: He won entrepreneur of the year the year before Michael Dell

Could you break down a general timeline of where your restaurants were and when they opened?

In June of 1983, I opened up the Bee Cave location of Chinatown. I went to Santa Monica and ate at Wolfgang's Puck's first restaurant, Chinois. We took his concept because I liked it so much. We called it Chinatown Grill, on 6th street. It was way before its time. We turned that into El Chino's, which was a Chinese/Mexican restaurant, in 1990.

Ashley: I was in third grade when this was happening. There were, like, taquito egg rolls. It was amazing.

Ronald: The moo shu pork was moo shu fajitas. The head chef was Jack Gilmore, who now runs Jack Allen's.

Ashley: When I used to tell people that my dad owned this restaurant called El Chino's that was Mexican-Chinese fusion, they would say, "That's crazy!" Now there's a Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant in Vegas.

Ronald: I learned that style in New York, from the Cuban and South American Chinese. There's a big population in New York, and they were mixing that up in 1988/89. I took that from there into Austin in 1990, but it was way before Austin's time.

We have opened so many restaurants. Chinatown, Chinatown Grill, El Chino's, a bar, and then we did a Chinatown on fifth and Colorado, Chinatown Café--

Ashley: There was also a Chinatown in Westlake that was my mom's. When they got divorced, my mom got that one and Dad got the Graystone location. She owned that my whole childhood, until she retired about two years ago. So now Dad's coming in and opening another Chinatown, in the very first original location.

Ronald: Westlake is an extremely difficult area, very hard for a fine dining restaurant. People all go out of Westlake to go eat. So it's going to be a challenge, but since I did it in '83, I'm sure I can do it again.

Ashley: There are people who went to Chinatown as children, and now they've grown up and moved back to Westlake. I get people my age all the time, who say, "Oh Chinatown, I used to go there on my birthday," or "I went there for prom."

Ronald: Now that everyone is all fusion, we're going back to traditional. At the new Bee Cave restaurant, we're going to do pan searing, a more difficult cooking style which takes more skill, than the easy stir-fries you associate with Chinese food. With Ashley's influence, I'm going to do more food with locally grown items.

Ashley: He really prides himself about being a local, family-owned business, and he likes to support local businesses in Austin, so going local makes total sense.

How are you planning on approaching local sourcing?

Ashley: We still have a long way to go with figuring all that out. With my involvement with Slow Food, I've gotten to know a lot of farmers and purveyors.

Ronald: We'll probably start out with specials. When you do local sourcing, the production is kind of limited, so you can't put it on the regular menu. The longevity of the product is unpredictable.

Ashley: Specials are a really good way for restaurants that are interested in supporting local foods and local businesses to test the waters.

Ashley, how did you go from growing up in a restaurant family to getting involved on the board of Slow Food?

Ashley: If you think about it, Austin's love of food, and their support of my family's restaurants, put me through college. After college, I ended up working PR for a number of large food brands, while I really loved the clients I worked for, I began to see a side of big business food that felt counter to my values. In my spare time I was going to farms and getting involved in local organizations. I decided I wanted to live a life that was in line with my personal values and ethics, and not have that disconnect.

So I quit my job and moved home to be more involved in my family's business when appropriate. I also work as a yoga teacher and am really active on the board of Slow Food. Something I really care about is supporting local businesses and helping them to make decisions that support the whole Austin local economy. It would feel hypocritical to run around saying this and not to try to convince my own family.

Ronald, you been working restaurants in Austin for over forty years. How have the city's tastes changed?

Ronald: The younger generation is trendier now. The older generation, people over forty, their tastes haven't changed. The younger generation is not that interested in the older style of restaurants. They're more into the new and hip restaurants, trendy design. The restaurant scene has become more of a club scene. You go meet people and have cocktails. Where as where I grew up, the entertainment was the dining. Now it is the whole environment, cocktailing and getting up to socialize.

Ash: Like communal tables. My friend called me from Portland recently, and she said, has Austin hit the peak of communal tables? She says in Portland it's insane.

Ronald: If you look at the older restaurants, the ones that have been here twenty or thirty years, we don't really get swayed much by the trends. Who ever thought pork belly was such a hot item? It was a cheap thing, and now it's a hot ingredient. We've been cooking pork bellies forever, but before no one would touch it. Maybe next the trend will be chicken feet. We have chicken feet here for dim sum.

Have you noticed a change in the Chinese restaurant scene here in Austin?

Ronald: The meaning of fine old Chinese cuisine has been lost. Cooks have taken the easy way out. It's difficult to put out good product, and it's more laborious.

Ashley: In the States, Chinese food has gotten a bad reputation. People expect it to be cheap. In the last few years, you can see that people who do really traditional stuff are getting more diverse clientele.

Ronald: Chinatown has always been known as the fine dining Chinese restaurant. We've never gone the cheaper route. We're more expensive than the others, but there's a reason. We have extremely high standards. Chinese food is extremely laborious and takes time. For thirty years I've fulfilled that standard, I can't diminish it. My daughter would give me hell.

What's your thirty years of wisdom for someone going into the restaurant industry?

Ronald: Plan on not having a family life. It's a 24-7 job. You have to be extremely dedicated and love your job. You don't really have to love food, but you need to love working with food. Because you are constantly eating out at other restaurants to find out what other people are doing. When I'm researching, I could eat at eleven different restaurants in one day.

What does it mean to have a passion for working with food? Lots of people think that they have that, only to get into the industry and discover that it means something different than they thought.

When you see a plate comes out, you start guessing exactly what's in it and how it was prepared. When you go into a restaurant, your eyes are constantly moving around, seeing what's going on at that restaurant, looking at what people are ordering, why are they enjoying it so much. Then you dissect it and implement the flavors into your menu. That's why I eat out so much and travel all over. After thirty years, when I take one look and one taste, I know exactly what's going on in a dish.

What's a favorite story of yours from the last thirty years at the restaurant?

You were asking about restaurant advice, and I was saying it's 24-7 job. You're so busy cooking and taking care of guests that sometimes you lose track of your children.

My daughter Christina was about three years old. She was so hungry, and we were so busy taking care of customers that we forgot we hadn't fed our child. She goes over the giant rice cooker in the kitchen. At age three, she pulls off the top, sticks her hands into the rice, and starts stuffing her face. She had rice all over her face and neck. My chef was laughing. The whole kitchen was laughing, surrounding Christina. The chefs call me over, and I thought something major had gone wrong. In the middle of the floor I see my daughter, smiling, with rice all over her face. That's what it takes to be a restaurateur. Your children have to suffer.

What do you like to eat when you're not at one of your restaurants?

One of my favorite dishes is chicken fried steak. When I was a kid, maybe thirteen years old, I got twenty-five cents a night from my mother for washing dishes. And I would save up the money all week. About two blocks from my mother's restaurant, on Hancock Drive, there was a restaurant called Big Tex. They had a Saturday lunch special for ninety-nine cents with Texas toast and a baked potato. I would save my quarters and have my feast of chicken fried steak.

Ashley: The gold of America!

Ronald: I've eaten Chinese food all my life. So the exciting thing for me is that chicken fried steak. Now when I go to a restaurant where they have chicken fried steak, I order that. Just to have it and remember where I came from.
· All Chinatown Coverage [EATX]


3407 Greystone Dr Austin, TX 78731