Houston is known as a multicultural city — a true melting pot of people and cuisines from around the world. This is the final installment of our miniseries where we take a look at the chefs responsible for creating authentic dishes from several different nations right here in Houston.
Eddie and May Chan has a long and storied history in Houston, at one time owning multiple restaurants here. They’re older now and downscaled some time ago to only having one restaurant: Café Chino off of Highway 59 between Edloe and Buffalo Speedway. The interior, with its tall, backlit bar area and tasteful dining room setting, belies the casual strip center storefront.
May Chan was born in 1954 in Hong Kong. She is part of a big family that included her parents, her grandmother and seven brothers and sisters. Her affinity for food and cooking became apparent when she was a young teen. She fell in love with the markets in Hong Kong. “I could spend hours there. I found it fascinating because you can mix and match certain things. Wonderful things happen and it’s good for your stomach,” she explained. “I had to learn how to budget to feed that many people. You have to be creative.”
In 1972, Chan moved to Houston. Her sister, married to an employee at NASA, already lived here. “At the time, Asians loved to come to the U.S. It was the Land of Opportunity. Whatever parents had to change—they wanted their kids to get out and go west where the opportunities were.”
She went to Clear Lake High School. Soon after, she met Edward Chan. Most people just call him “Eddie.” They dated a brief time and quickly married. She was only 19.
They met thanks to their involvement in his father’s restaurant, House of Chan, which was located on Nasa Road 1. “The funny thing is that my father-in-law was in the restaurant business,” recalled May. “He owned a restaurant. After school, I would pick up my mom. She worked as a dishwasher. Sometimes she was running behind, so I’d help her out. That’s how I met my husband. It was love at first sight.”
The newlyweds continued helping at the family restaurant for the next six years and May continued improving her English. Her primary role was in the kitchen. “My father-in-law was from Hong Kong and is a dim sum and banquet chef. That’s how I slowly learned things.”
Kitchen experience doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing the business side of running a restaurant. The Chans moved to Albuquerque, where he had gone to school after immigrating to the United States. They started their own place, but it failed after a year. “We were too young and had kids,” said May. “We had no experience in running a restaurant so it was a failure.”
They returned to Houston and May waited tables for several years. She was even a car salesman for 10 months. That didn’t work out, either, so she went back into the restaurant industry. She worked at Uncle Tai’s restaurant on Post Oak and became its first female captain. (The restaurant has long since closed. The only surviving location is in Boca Raton, Florida.) “In my life, I’ve been pretty lucky,” mused May. “It was at that point I realized that cooking could be at another level. You can go and really, really enjoy it.”
Eddie also worked at Uncle Tai’s as a captain for five years. After that, the Chans once again gave running a restaurant of their own a try. This time, it worked. In 1988, the original Café Chino was born in the Rice Village, where it would remain until 2010.
The spot at 6140 Village Parkway had formerly been a French-influenced Chinese restaurant called Cloisonné. The first time the Chans tried to lease the space, though, they lost out to another restaurateur. “We never had a chance. We were a young couple with no capital,” May said with a laugh.
The deal soured, though, and in three months the landlord was calling Eddie Chan to offer him the space. May recounted the conversation. “He said, ‘Eddie, if I fix up the space, will you do it?’ Of course, we said, ‘Oh yes!’”
Indeed, they did have some changes, like moving the front door to accommodate the design principals of feng shui. After some other changes, like new lighting and a new paint job, the space was good to go. May says the sudden availability of the space is another example of how she is lucky.
It was at this point that husband Eddie came over to join the conversation. May said, “My husband and I make a very good team. He loves to talk and I love to cook. When Café Chino opened, we were 31 or 32.” The couple didn’t have a lot of capital, so they literally built the place from scratch—even the furniture! “We had to make our own tables, menus, everything,” said May.
Those weren’t the only things to be made from scratch at Café Chino. To this day, May still makes her own recipes, sauces and other ingredients.
They kept the open concept kitchen from the prior owner. In those days, it was a rarity in Houston for diners to be able to see the actual cooking going on in the kitchen. They added windows, though, to prevent smoke and splattering oils from leaving the kitchen. “We were the first Chinese restaurant where you could see into the kitchen,” said Eddie. “In those days, in a Mexican or Italian restaurant, you could see them cook, but in a Chinese one? Oh, no, no, no! We were the first one.”
“Every Chinese New Year, Channel 13 would send a crew to the kitchen to film—every Chinese New Year for 10 or 15 years,” Eddie proudly reminisced.
It wasn’t the only media attention Café Chino received. Soon after opening, write-ups from the Houston Chronicle, The Houston Post, Texas Monthly and USA Today were published. “Suddenly, we were overnight celebrities!” laughed May.
More attention came, interestingly by way of a boarding pass. In those days, Continental Airlines put restaurant recommendations on the back of plane tickets for destination cities. “I was there right along with Tony Vallone, Brennan’s and Damien’s!” said Eddie Chan. “It was free. I tried to find out who was responsible so I could tell them I appreciated it, but I never could find them. I have no idea. I was just a little guy.”
Thanks to their long tenure in Houston’s restaurant industry, the Chans have witnessed first-hand the changes in diner expectations of Chinese cuisine. Back when they started in the' 70s and '80s, most of what was available was Americanized Chinese food.
“Chinese food had to be Westernized. We call it American-Chinese,” said May. “Now, people want to go on an adventure. They want to go beyond and want authentic. Now they say, ‘Whatever you eat, I’ll eat.’ Before, they were very cautious. They’d come into a Chinese restaurant and order the same thing over and over.” In other words, there were a lot of orders for General Tso’s Chicken and Moo Goo Gai Pan.
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Still, May found a way to upgrade those common dishes. She used chicken tenderloin in her General Tso’s Chicken. “It was very tender meat, less work and very tasty. I used good-quality, fresh ingredients and we fried our General Tso’s Chicken fresh daily. People can taste the difference.”
Eddie added, “We use fresh produce and meat. No matter what style it is—old style or new style Chinese food—if you don’t have the quality for the consumer, they will not appreciate it. Most Asian restaurants still use canned vegetables and you can taste the metal.”
May jumped in and elaborated on that point. “When started back in 1988, I already was refusing to use canned vegetables. I cut out the canned mushrooms. I don’t use canned water chestnuts, either. I wanted to use fresh products to do my cooking.” May discovered a clever substitute for water chestnuts that is available year-round. Jicama has very much the same texture as and is easily found in its natural state in Houston."
Come back tomorrow and we’ll find out more of the Chans’ history, including why they moved Café Chino from Rice Village to the current location.