Pasco’s oldest operating restaurant has been serving the Tri-City community for 58 years.
Chinese Gardens at 1520 N. Fourth Ave. has been a cornerstone of Pasco since the late founder Jack Lee opened it in 1965.
The building is hard to miss with its mix of mid-century brick architecture and flamboyant neon signs flanked by dragons. And it is unofficially on sale for the third time in its history.
Owners Ted and Amy Wong plan to retire after operating it for the past 33 years. Ted turned 70 this year.
“Until the last two years, (Ted) worked at the restaurant seven days a week, 10 hours a day,” Amy said. The couple have decided to cut back and close on Mondays and no longer offer take-out delivery, but that hasn’t hurt business.
“People have a lot of memories there,” Ted said. “A lot of people are leaving town, but when they come to visit, they still like to pick up food to take home. We have many long-time customers. »
Scrolling through the pages of restaurant guest reviews reveals fond memories and experiences spanning decades: birthday traditions, outings with grandparents and now grandkids, retirement parties, Friday night takeout, memorable dates and more.
Old and new guests alike praise Chinese Gardens for retaining its original vibe and not giving in to a cookie-cutter revamp.
Ted said there have been updates over the years — upholstery, carpeting and restroom refreshes, for example — but otherwise preserved Lee’s original vision.
Jim Beam collection
One of the hallmarks of Chinese Gardens is its extensive collection of vintage Jim Beam whiskey decanters on display throughout the bar and restaurant.
Produced between 1952 and the mid-1980s in an effort to boost sales, Jim Beam’s detailed ceramic bottles came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and themes, primarily commemorating historical events, people, and more. . They are popular with collectors. The collection of Chinese gardens has 325.
It’s unclear if they’ve just been circulating around the bar over the years or if they’ve been sought out by Lee.
The Wongs said they didn’t know the history of the collection, as the bottles were already there when they took over in 1989.
The couple spent nine years working at the restaurant after immigrating to the United States from Canton, China in 1980.
Ted’s father immigrated in 1963 and later found work in the kitchen of Gim Tuen ‘Jack’ Lee’s newly opened restaurant.
Lee was also an immigrant from Canton, arriving in 1948. He grew up in Walla Walla where he graduated from high school in 1956.
After a stint as an army paratrooper, he briefly attended Washington State University before becoming a restaurateur with the purchase of New China Restaurant in Walla Walla.
In 1964 he moved to Pasco and opened Chinese Gardens the following year.
The arrival of Ted’s father paved the way for Ted and Amy to immigrate, and later for other family members seeking opportunities in America. Some also went to work for Lee.
Asked about the challenges they faced as immigrants and later as business owners, Amy said: “At first my husband didn’t even know ABCD so it was a big step for him. .
“We worked hard,” she added.
Amy remembers starting out as an assistant waitress, setting and clearing tables.
“Then, later, I was a waitress, so just a step by step. Even Ted wasn’t a cook at first; he cut vegetables for a long time and then he became a cook,” she said.
In 1985, Lee sold Chinese Gardens to the Rupp family, owners of Cost Less Carpet, and the Wongs ran the kitchen.
In 1989, the Rupps decided to sell, and so Ted and Amy stepped up.
Lee died in 2004 and according to his obituary, “he was always involved in all aspects of his restaurant. Besides running it, he tended the bar, cooked and mingled with his customers. Good food and good service were his top priorities.
Tri-Cities Longtime Restaurants
Chinese Gardens isn’t the only restaurant in Tri-City with a long lifespan.
The oldest in Kennewick is Zip’s, a fast-casual restaurant (including its location in Richland), established at its location near the Cable Bridge in 1953, according to the Town of Kennewick. As far as sit-down establishments go, it’s Hill’s Restaurant, which opened in 1962 at the Columbia Center before moving in the 1990s to its current location on Vista Way.
Richland’s oldest is the Spudnut Shop, which opened in 1948 at Richland Wye before moving to its current location in the Uptown Shopping Center in 1950. Hot on its heels is Lee’s Tahitian, also in the Uptown, which has opened in 1952 as Vina’s Tahitian, according to the East Benton County Historical Society.
Hard work pays off
The Wongs noted there was a lot more competition today.
When asked their secret to success, Ted and Amy replied, “Hard work.”
And of course, good food.
“We try to keep the same quality and menu and just add new items, but we don’t take anything away,” Amy said.
Ted said customers really appreciate the variety of flavors on offer, especially in the chicken dishes. Their most popular dishes are lo mein, almond chicken, pineapple chicken, barbecue pork and spring rolls.
He mentioned that Panda Express would enter Court Street, but they weren’t fazed.
“We prepare our food fresh, so I don’t think Panda Express will bother me. 10 or 20 years ago I might have been, but it doesn’t bother me much now,” he said. “A lot of restaurants have come and gone, but we’re still here.”
Chinese Gardens: 1520 N. Fourth Ave., Pasco; 509-545-6324; chinese-gardens.com; Opening hours: 11am-9pm Tuesday to Thursday; 11am-10pm Friday to Saturday; 12pm-9pm Sunday; Closed on Mondays.