WILMINGTON — “It’s been so heartwarming,” Deming Chu said Monday morning of his restaurant’s last weekend serving his loyal fanbase. “We may not be able to make it to Thursday, actually.”
It was then that Chu and her husband, Henry, closed the doors of Panda Chinese. It’s been a busy weekend and stocks are low. Propane has also increased exponentially and they are no longer ordering.
“They have minimum deliveries…$500,” she said.
Panda Chinese’s lease ends on June 30. Chu said it’s been 30 years since they moved to 7316 Market St., located next to Big Lots! Originally from China, she and her husband moved from Boston to Wilmington in 1994 to raise their family and operate the restaurant.
For many in the Ogden area, the restaurant has become a staple, including patroness Liz Gaines, who said her stepfather introduced her to the restaurant years ago. He went there every week with his best friend and always spoke fondly of the owners.
“Everyone was always friendly,” she said. The Cantonese style cuisine was also consistent.
On a pre-Covid visit, Gaines said the landlady noticed her daughter looking at all the “panda souvenirs ahead of time” and generously gifted the girl one.
“We of course still have it,” Gaines said.
Chu said while takeaways have skyrocketed during Covid, they weren’t without normal challenges for most of the industry. Specifically, finding employees was becoming increasingly difficult.
“The younger generations didn’t seem interested in learning the skills to cook,” she said.
And his children had moved on to other careers, in software development and the pharmaceutical industry. Added to the decision to close is the deteriorating health of Chu’s parents. Her mother died of cancer three months ago and her father, who lives in Chicago, now needs treatment after suffering a stroke. Chu and her husband will travel between Chicago and Wilmington in the meantime to help out after Panda Chinese closes.
While there aren’t plans to necessarily open another restaurant — “I don’t think I have it in me yet,” Chu said — they’re leaving the space in the hands of another restaurateur. Guelaguetza Oaxaca takes over in the fall.
“It will be focused on natural ingredients and flavors from Oaxaca,” Cinthya Regino said on behalf of her family, including Stella Jakare Azamar Vicente and Yadira Regino Gonzalez, who will operate the establishment.
This is the family’s first restaurant and will boast generations of family recipes. Regino said signature dishes will include memelites (traditional snacks in Oaxaca, grilled or fried masa cakes topped with Mexican flavors) and tlayudas (large, thin hand-made tortillas, partially fried or grilled and topped with refried beans, lettuce or cabbage, avocado, meat, Oaxaca cheese and salsa).
“Everything is made from scratch and fresh,” she said, with prices ranging from $10 to $25.
Renovations will begin as soon as the Chu family leaves. Specifically, Regino said they will decorate to represent their culture and have 14 tables for people to dine inside (“no bar at this time”). Takeout will also be available, and the family is planning a September launch.
As for diners who want a lasting bite of Chinese Panda, Chu said they have a parting gift: “We’ll probably post the recipe for our wings on Facebook. Everyone loves our wings, so anyone can make it and taste Chinese panda when we’re gone.
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