By Matthew Odam - American-Statesman Staff
Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, April 12, 2014
Chinatown owner Ronald Cheng finds new life and a new challenge
Ronald Cheng left the hospital in May 2013 and returned home to find his condo empty.
During an abbreviated physical rehab following Cheng’s most recent hospitalization, someone had entered his place and cleared out the clothing and furniture.
The culprit: his 82-year-old mother, Linda Cheng.
Linda Cheng had moved her oldest son into her house. At 55, Ronald Cheng was a boomerang kid. He was also on the verge of starting the second act of his long career as a restaurateur.
During his convalescence, Ronald Cheng found comfort in his mother’s cooking and the inspiration to seek a new challenge. He plans to open Chinatown West Town at 2712 Bee Cave Road later this month in the same location where he opened his original Chinatown restaurant in 1983.
The owner of Austin’s two Chinatown restaurants entered the hospital with pneumonia in September 2012. His pulmonary specialist discovered an aneurysm. Another specialist confirmed that it was a splenic aneurysm, and Cheng opted for elective surgery. Billed as a three-hour procedure, the surgery mutated into a 13-hour marathon session requiring three separate surgeries, with doctors eventually removing Cheng’s damaged spleen. The situation turned dire. Cheng lost more than two quarts of blood. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for 16 days.
After that brush with death, Cheng landed back in the hospital in the spring of 2013 because of complications with his pancreas. What should have been a six-week rehabilitation and recovery period was cut to five days when the stubborn Cheng showed enough physical strength to procure his release from the hospital. But Linda Cheng wasn’t convinced by her obdurate son’s claims of independence.
“I don’t believe that you can’t do something,” Cheng said recently from his Chinatown restaurant that overlooks MoPac Boulevard. “But she wanted to take care of me.”
Linda Cheng knows something about strong wills. She and her sister opened Austin’s first immigrant-owned Chinese restaurant in 1970 on Burnet Road, months after arriving in Texas from China. The Sisters started as a gift shop, with Linda Cheng expanding the operation to include a café in order to support her family.
The family moved into the house’s cramped bedroom, with Linda Cheng converting the master bedroom into a café with five tables. She became a staff of one, walking to the store daily to procure groceries for her restaurant and family. Her independence and determination set an early example for her three children. (Ronald Cheng’s father, Youn Fang, arrived in Texas in 1972 and died in 1991.)
“To see her walk every day and to carry two big bags full of groceries every day, to climb that hill, and then go home by herself every day to cook, and then take care of three kids and get up in the morning and work all day and all night, it taught me the lesson about working hard,” Cheng said, his voice softening and quavering.
Cheng started working for his mother around age 12, first washing dishes, then making his way from server to fry cook. By 19 he was working the line and cooking with his mother’s wok.
After graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in international business, Ronald Cheng briefly ran the Sisters before a sojourn to Houston, where he studied under the tutelage of legendary chef Peng Chang-kuei, the man credited with creating General Tso’s chicken.
Ronald Cheng returned to Austin with several of Peng’s chefs and opened the original Chinatown on Bee Cave Road on June 1, 1983. Over the next 20 years, driven by an ambition he credits to his mother, Cheng operated multiple traditional and fusion restaurants around town under the Chinatown brand, including Chinatown Grill, Chinatown Café, El Chino and Chinois. Chinatown Downtown opened in 1999 and is still in business on Fifth Street. Ronald’s ex-wife, Linda, operated a Chinatown at 3300 Bee Cave Road in the Westlake area from 1998 to 2012. Cheng opened the flagship location off MoPac in 1987, and claims it is the longest running Chinese restaurant in Austin.
But following his flurry of entrepreneurial activity, the man who could occasionally be spotted jumping in to help work the line in an Armani suit lost his motivation. He moved into a supervisory role at his successful restaurants and settled into complacency.
“For quite a while I didn’t have any more drive,” Cheng said. “I didn’t set new goals.”
His brush with death and his time with his mother changed that.
“She would make me eat her food,” Cheng said. “And, as I watched her, I started remembering the old way of cooking, and saw some of the spices and techniques she was using.”
As he watched his mother simmer and braise meat and prepare his daily meals, Ronald Cheng felt a spark of passion. He started conjuring new dishes and considered getting back in the kitchen. When the original Chinatown location became available last year (after the closing of Bistro 88), Cheng knew he wanted to tackle a new challenge.
The new menu will include items such as San Bei Ji (three-cup chicken), a Cheng family favorite and popular dish in Taiwan that derives its name from the major ingredients used to stew the chicken — soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. Linda Cheng’s influence on the new menu will also be seen in a steamed sea bass dish that Ronald will season with aged Chinese ham, a technique his mother uses to add flavor to many of her dishes.
While Cheng’s using his new space to “get back to his roots,” he plans to contemporize some dishes and play outside of the realm of classic Chinese cuisine, incorporating Thai basil and lemongrass, ingredients traditionally found in Vietnamese dishes.
The restaurant will also reflect the next generation of Chengs. Ronald’s daughter, Ashley is the vice president of Slow Food Austin, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about the food they eat and where it comes from. She has influenced her father’s ideas regarding sourcing. Once the restaurant has found its footing, Ronald Cheng intends to introduce locally sourced and sustainable ingredients to his roster of daily specials.
Ashley, one of Cheng’s five children, and her fiancé have started Grass & Grain Meat, a distribution company offering humanely raised and sustainably sourced beef. Her father has agreed to be their first wholesale customer.
“I’m immensely proud of my father. When you grow up in the restaurant industry, you really see very little of your parents. It’s hard to understand as a child why everyone is always gone during normal dinner hours. With all the health scares of the last year though, our family wasn’t just reinvigorated; it was more like a much-needed jolting awake. My father is a different person today than when he went into that coma in 2013. Ironically, with the opening of another restaurant our family is actually growing even closer.”
The new restaurant in the old location symbolizes a return and a rebirth for Ronald Cheng. It also speaks to the former high school tennis player’s intense competitive nature. Austin’s food scene had grown exponentially in recent years, and Cheng wanted to use his “second chance in life” to prove to himself, his mother and his peers in the restaurant world that he still has the skills and the will to succeed.
More than 30 years after he opened his original restaurant in Austin, Cheng returns with renewed purpose to the place that launched his career. He’s back home on Bee Cave Road, and he’s back home with his mother, with no intention of leaving.
“It is actually very comforting to be home again,” Cheng said.
Of course, just as Linda Cheng devoted most of her time to her restaurant when her son was a child, Ronald will now obsess over the operational details of running a restaurant. Linda knows the toll that such a task can take and admits that, like any mother, she will always worry about her children, regardless of their age.
“I think he’s crazy. Restaurants are such hard work. Our family can’t help it though — it’s what we do,” said Linda Cheng, whose daughter, Freda Cheng, owns Freda’s Seafood Grille in Cedar Park. “In our culture, feeding people is an offering of love and respect.”
The indefatigable Ronald understands his mother’s concerns about his health but remains philosophical.
“A person never dies from working too much,” Cheng said. “You only die from being lazy.”
It’s a lesson he learned from his mother.
The Austin Chronicle
by Virginia B. Wood, 6:00pm, SUN. May 18
That's right, longtime Austin chef and restaurateur Ronald Cheng is back in the first building where he established a local name for himself in 1983. After a couple years of heart ailments, Cheng has a new lease on life, and the first Chinatown is back with chic and colorful new decor, both old and new menu items, and plenty of exciting ideas.
When we spoke with the chef and his daughter, publicist Ashley Cheng, last week, they were excited about plans for today's opening while dealing with the fact that a flash flood had coursed through the newly remodeled restaurant the night before. They were eagerly anticipating the arrival of one more piece of art they'd collected for the newly refurbished eatery, while making sure the carpets were dry, on top of conducting an interview. They are a hardworking family of multitaskers.
"When one of my former employees told me the restaurant here had failed and the building was available, I decided that since I'd been given this new chance at life, I would make something great again in this building," Cheng explained.
When Chef Cheng talks about the new decor, he uses terms like "sexy" and "intriguing" and points out that areas of the large dining room can be sectioned off with fully stocked wine racks depending on the layout he needs. "I've always been in the forefront of offering wine with Chinese food and I intend to continue doing that," Cheng reports. The glamorous new restaurant boasts a full bar as well as a private dining room for parties.
The new Chinatown menu will offer dim sum for weekend brunch, sushi, and many old favorites, but Chef Cheng encourages adventurous diners to come in for some of his new dishes. "Westerners may not recognize some of the things we'll be doing, but I'm going to try to educate them about dishes from Chinese provinces they may not know," he says with enthusiasm.
Another interesting aspect to Cheng's new business model will be cooking classes, and the ingenious way they'll be offered. "I'm not someone who likes to do the same thing all the time – show up at the restaurant on a Saturday morning and teach the same recipes over and over," Cheng says. "Now that my daughter showed me about chefs making podcasts and posting videos, I can film the cooking of any dish I want and put the class out there for people to learn new dishes."
Ronald Cheng: chef, restaurateur, future YouTube sensation. Go meet him at his newest restaurant.
Chinatown Westlake Hills
2712 Bee Caves Rd. 512/328-6588
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday & Saturday, 11am-10:30pm
The Austin Chronicles
Dim Sum at Chinatown
Some of Austin's best dim sum
REVIEWED BY MICK VANN, FRI., APRIL 18, 2008
Ronald Cheng has 25 years of experience as a restaurateur in Austin, and with Chinatown's dim sum service, that experience shows. Chinatown occupies the upper floor of a stand-alone building on the southwest corner of Greystone and the MoPac frontage road, a few blocks north of Far West; Musashino Sushi Dokoro is on the lower level. One caveat is that for the disabled, Chinatown access could prove daunting.
Inside you'll find a sumptuous interior, all dark wood and lacquer, with red linen table settings and loads of Chinese decorative accents. There's a separate fully stocked bar and a very complete wine and sake list. The menu also features an assortment of upscale gourmet teas ($10-40 per pot). The waitstaff hovers in black-and-white uniforms, providing excellent service.
The dim sum menu offers 53 different selections (actually more, since some of the items we sampled were not on the menu) in prices ranging from $2.45 to $6.95 for the special selections. Service is from carts, but one waiter implied that if you wanted a particular item from the menu, it would be brought. We never tested him, since there always seemed to be an infusion of new items into the circulating carts. As for the carts, kudos go to Chinatown for their service equipment: Their carts are heated so that all of the items arrive piping hot; pan-fried items are par-cooked and finished table-side on a portable griddle.
We started with a large savory timbale of sticky rice topped with copious slices of Chinese sausage ($4.25): the rice with nice flavor and texture, the sausage rich and complementary. Chicken-mushroom pastry rolls (two for $2.45) were less successful: the pastry sweet and flaky with a rather homogenous and nondistinctive savory filling. Pan-fried daikon cake (three, $2.45) is nicely done: light-textured and golden-brown with bits of pork and dried shrimp. Baked barbecue pork bun (two, $2.45) is excellent: a light, golden pastry with wonderful char siu pork interior. Pork pot sticker dumplings (three, $3.25) are superb: a perfect wrapper stuffed with coarse minced pork.
Chicken-basil dumplings (three, $3.25) are plump, flattened globes stuffed with forcemeat of minced chicken; we'd love more basil in the mixture, but they are superb. Shrimp-and-cilantro dumplings (two, $4.25) are large, elongated steamed dumplings with a delicate wrapper and chunky shrimp filling; the cilantro taste is subtle. Steamed scallop dumplings (three, $4.25) are delicious, stuffed with sweet scallops and crunchy water chestnuts. Hong Kong stalwart shrimpchow fun (three, $4.25) is wonderful: a silky rice sheet enwrapping chunks of shrimp in enchilada or banh cuon fashion, topped with sweet soy sauce.
We loved our bacon-wrapped prawn roll with honey sauce (two, $4.75). Minced shrimp is molded around a central stick of Chinese celery into a large log, which is then wrapped in bacon and browned off. It arrives in a puddle of sprightly citrus-honey sauce, which complements the shrimp and bacon quite well. Coffee-glazed pork spareribs (four, $4.75) are a surprisingly good treat. The acid from the coffee balances nicely with brown sugar and spices; the ribs are very tender. And just to break the monotony of the pork and shrimp fest, we grabbed a rather large dish of fresh snow pea shoots, barely stir-fried with a little garlic and oyster sauce ($4.75). Roughage is a good thing!
On our two trips, the Asian diners were out in force, especially families. They seemed to be just as content and satiated as we were once we reached our limit. Our advice: Stake out a table near the kitchen door, pace yourself, and enjoy some of Austin's best dim sum.
Dining Out with Rob Balon
REVIEWED BY ROB BALON, November 22nd. 2012
One of the more consistent dining pleasures in Austin for the last 30 years has been the often imitated but never duplicated fare at Ronald Cheng’s Chinatown restaurants. Ronald almost single-handedly pioneered a dramatic change in our local Chinese cuisine from a bunch of sleepy mom and pop places, where #8 or #4 (fill in the blanks and add eggroll, fried rice, and a soup to the entree) were the standards, to a bustling energetic and wildly innovative kind of Chinese restaurant never before seen in Austin. We’re talking dishes from all the major provinces in China with flavors ranging from searing to mellow, and presentation the likes of which Austin had never seen. In fact, Chinatown has been in our Top 20 since we began Dining Out with Rob Balon in 2001.
Aside from the great flavors and killer visual appeals to Chinatown’s food, they are always experimenting and introducing new flavors and dishes. And that’s what we want to show you today.
Tradition mandates that we begin with appetizers, and there are some stunning new preparations. The Szechuan Leek and Shrimp Dumplings are simply delicious: light and almost gossamer they would be the envy of any dim sum feast. And do try the Braised Pork Belly with Garlic Soy Sauce. Nobody harnesses these savory and aromatic flavors better than Ronald. This is first bite bliss, and the tenderness of this dish will amaze you.
The Shrimp and Scallop Lettuce Wrap is a perfect late summer dish. Not only is it low in carbs, but this is not your run of the mill lettuce wrap. The sauteed shrimp and scallops along with water chestnut and Thai chili see to that. Crunchy goodness in each bite here.
Then it is imperative that you try the Grilled Salmon salad. You begin with a perfectly grilled salmon served over a spring salad. They adorn this with fried strips of salmon skin that can be dipped win the accompanying honey, walnut, lemon and sesame dressing. OMG!
Another new dish that rocked my world was the Imperial Noodles. These ramen noodles served with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts with an over-easy egg on top and a light soy are just ridiculously good. The dish presents beautifully and tastes even better.
The new entrees continue the trend of evolving and layered tastes. The Flaming Chicken (while not actually flaming) might as well be because the sauteed chicken in ginger, green onions and dry pepper in a spicy brown sauce is on the mercurial side and I loved every bite of it. Great new dish. Also got a huge kick out of the Cantonese Walnut Shrimp. This dish bears no resemblance to the mayonnaise-laden affairs one sees at other Chinese places. This is quick-fried shrimp with a very light sweet and sour mayo, and that makes for a much lighter dish that is infinitely appealing on these still hot days we’re having. The Gluten-Free Smoked Ham Fried Rice is another keeper. Only Chinatown could take what appears to be a somewhat pedestrian dish, and turn it magical. This amalgam of smoked ham, corn, egg and onion fried rice is quite simply irresistible. You won’t be able to put it down. Also worth trying is the Japanese Salt and Pepper Soft Tofu. Crispy and mellow, the tofu is enhanced with jalapenos, onions and shallots. It has the deft touch of the master which elevates it to a new level.
You don’t stay atop the charts for 30 years by resting on your laurels. Chinatown is always evolving and Ronald, Steve, Jimmy and the team make sure of that. What you’ve seen today are some of the newer ideas. But rest assured. there will be more!