Owners of Pasco’s oldest restaurant plan to retire

Pasco’s oldest continuously operating restaurant has been serving the Tri-City community for 58 years.

Chinese Gardens at 1520 N. Fourth Ave. has been a Pasco cornerstone since late founder Jack Lee opened it in 1965.

The building is hard to miss with its mashup of pagoda-esque midcentury brick architecture and flamboyant, dragon-flanked neon signs. And it’s unofficially up for 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 past two years, (Ted) has been working at the restaurant seven days a week, 10 hours per day,” Amy said. The couple decided to scale back and close on Mondays and are no longer offering delivery on takeout, but this hasn’t put a damper on business.

“People have lots of memories there,” Ted said. “A lot of people move out of town but when they come to visit, they still like to pick up food to take home. We have a lot of longtime customers.”

Scrolling through the pages of customer restaurant reviews reveals fond memories and experiences spanning decades: birthday traditions, outings with grandparents and now grandchildren, retirement parties, Friday night takeout, memorable dates and more.

Customers old and new praise Chinese Gardens for maintaining its original vibe and not giving in to a cookie-cutter overhaul.

Ted said there have been updates over the years – upholstery, carpeting and a restroom refresh, for example – but they have otherwise preserved Lee’s original vision.

Jim Beam collection

One of Chinese Gardens’ trademarks is its extensive collection of vintage Jim Beam whiskey decanters on display throughout the bar and restaurant.

Produced between 1952 and the mid-1980s as a promotion to drive sales, Jim Beam’s detailed ceramic bottles came in a variety of shapes, sizes and themes, commemorating predominately American historical events, people and more. They are popular among collectors. Chinese Gardens’ collection numbers 325.

Chinese Gardens displays an extensive collection of vintage Jim Beam whiskey decanters throughout the bar and restaurant numbering 325. (Photo by Laura Kostad)

Whether they simply circulated through the bar over the years or were sought out by Lee is unknown.

The Wongs said they don’t know the collection’s history, as the bottles were already there when they took over in 1989.

Becoming owners

The couple spent nine years working at the restaurant after immigrating to the U.S. from Canton, China, in 1980.

Ted’s father immigrated in 1963 and later found work in the kitchen at Gim Tuen ‘Jack’ Lee’s then newly opened restaurant.

Lee also was 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 the New China Restaurant in Walla Walla.

In 1964, he moved to Pasco and opened Chinese Gardens the following year.

Ted’s father’s arrival paved the way for Ted and Amy to immigrate, and later other family members seeking opportunity in America. Some also went to work for Lee.

When asked about the challenges they faced as immigrants and later as business owners, Amy said, “At the beginning, my husband didn’t even know A-B-C-D, so that was a big step for him.”

“We worked hard,” she added.

Amy recalled starting out as an assistant to the waitresses, setting and clearing the tables.

“Then, later, I was a waitress, so just a step by step. Even Ted was not a cook at the start; he was just cutting vegetables for a long time and then he became a cook,” she said.

In 1985, Lee sold Chinese Gardens to the Rupp family, the owners of Cost Less Carpet, and the Wongs managed 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 managing it, he tended bar, cooked, and mingled with his customers. Good food and good service were his main priorities.”

Tri-Cities’ longtime restaurants

Chinese Gardens isn’t the only Tri-City restaurant with longevity.

Kennewick’s oldest is fast casual dining favorite Zip’s (including its Richland location), established at its spot by the cable bridge in 1953, according to the city of Kennewick. As far as sit-down establishments go, it’s Hill’s Restaurant, which opened in 1962 at 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 the Richland Wye before moving to its present location in the Uptown Shopping Center in 1950. Close on its heels is Lee’s Tahitian, also in the Uptown, which opened in 1952 as Vina’s Tahitian, according to the East Benton County Historical Society.

Hard work pays off

The Wongs noted there’s a lot more competition today.

When asked their secret to success, both Ted and Amy replied, “Hard work.”

And of course, good food.

“We try to keep the quality and the menu the same and just add new items, but not take any away,” Amy said.

Ted said customers really enjoy the variety of flavors offered, especially in the chicken dishes. Their most popular meals are lo mein, almond chicken, pineapple chicken, barbecue pork and egg rolls.

He mentioned that Panda Express is going in on Court Street, but they aren’t fazed.

“We make our food fresh, so I don’t think Panda Express will bother me. Ten 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; Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday; Closed Mondays.

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