The restaurant business is notoriously tough, with slim profit margins and a high risk of failure.
The family-owned Dragon City Cafe beat those odds for some 40 years, serving up Chinese food at 43rd Avenue and East Lake Street in south Minneapolis.
When Dragon City closed its doors recently, it was because Donna Fong, 87, had decided to retire. In the years since her husband and one of her sons died, she had kept the restaurant open with the help of her daughter, Joanie Quan, and a cast of family members.
Mid-morning on one of the restaurant's last days in business, Quan stood patiently over the stove in the tiny kitchen, a long-handled brush in hand. She was cleaning a huge wok, sending clouds of steam into the air. She had already been at work for hours.
"I came early in the morning, got everything ready, got all the chicken steak done for today, all my chow mein done, all the cream cheese," Quan said. "What else?"
What else? Saying goodbye to all of Dragon City's loyal customers, who were stopping by the restaurant in droves.
Jeanne Cherner was one such customer. She lives just a few blocks away from the restaurant, and said she initially "kind of ignored" Dragon City, because it was just too close to home.
"Then I broke down one day because I was really hungry and tired and I didn't want to cook," she said. "And I came in here and I just fell in love with the place."
She said her usual order was chicken chow mein, but every so often she went for the chicken wonton soup. "It's comfort food," she said.
"There's nothing more American than going out for Chinese food," said Richard Fong, Donna's son.
The Fong family immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 1969, part of a wave of immigrants following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
"Can you think about moving to another country with seven kids when you're in your mid-40s?" Fong said.
His father had been a barber in Hong Kong, but when the family arrived in the U.S., he began working at a suburban restaurant called the White House.
"Eventually, he and my mother and a number of my family worked at the Nankin restaurant, which as everyone knows was an institution in Minneapolis," Fong said. "And I remember as a kid, I just couldn't wait until I was old enough to work at the Nankin, because my mom worked there, my dad, my brother, my sisters, and just before I was supposed to work, whammo — we had Dragon City."
The restaurant was in a narrow, two-story building off Lake Street in south Minneapolis. The small, wood-paneled cafe was on the first floor, and there were living quarters above. Over the years, Dragon City Cafe quietly became a neighborhood institution.
"My husband and I were talking about this restaurant, and he called it a little gem," Cherner said. "Other things will come in its place, but it's a big loss."
It's a bittersweet time for the Fong family, too.
"The only thing I want to say is thank you," Richard Fong said. "Thank you for allowing my family to be part of this community. Thank you for welcoming us as we were immigrants. Thank you for being our customers. Thank you for being our friends.
"Thank you is all I can say."
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