After 40 years of serving up General Tso’s chicken and Mongolian beef to Tri-Cities residents, China Cafe is shutting its doors.
The last day for the Kennewick restaurant at the Highlands Shopping Center at Highway 395 and West Clearwater Avenue will be Nov. 30.
The building, originally constructed for a Pizza Hut, has been sold to the owners of Graze, a popular sandwich and salad shop. They plan to open their third Tri-Cities restaurant there.
Ming Tam, who took over the China Cafe from a previous owner in about 1984, said it was time to let the business go. He opted not to renew a lease that kept getting pricier, he said.
But his restaurant will be missed by generations of Tri-City residents.
“My whole family grew up on China Cafe,” said Don Rhodes, 68, as he left the restaurant after lunch with his wife, Cathy, on a recent day.
They like the food so much that when they want Chinese food, they drive over from West Richland, he said.
“They recognize us as soon as we walk in the door, and they’ll ask, ‘Where’s the rest of the family?’” he said.
He liked to bring his children and now his grandchildren to the restaurant.
Tam says he and his staff appreciate and have enjoyed serving their loyal, longtime customers.
He learned the Chinese restaurant business working in Montana for a few years before coming to the Tri-Cities, he said.
He doesn’t need recipes. He can watch a dish being prepared once and replicate it.
Although he’s been cooking for more than four decades, he continues to learn and improve his dishes, he said.
If he hears a customer likes a meal served at another Chinese restaurant, he’ll purchase an order to taste it and may adjust how he prepares his own version, he said.
But at age 60 he’s ready for a break from the restaurant business.
Restaurant business is tough
His work days are long, sometimes stretching to 2 or 3 a.m. between working at China Cafe and Columbia Market in Pasco.
The Asian foods market he owns at West Court Street and North 20th Avenue will stay open. It includes a deli with a limited menu, he said.
In recent years running China Cafe has been more challenging as more restaurants opened in the neighborhood serving a similar style of Chinese food, he said.
“We’re doing OK,” he said. “We just work harder. We make a living.”
He’s overcome problems in the past at the restaurant, including teens and young adults filling the shopping center’s parking lot to socialize on weekend evenings early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
That was intimidating for his older dinner customers, Tam said.
He also had to contend with lack of parking at times after the Gold’s Gym opened in the shopping center in 2010.
More recently his headache has been finding staff that will stick with service industry jobs, he said.
His current staff of seven are looking for jobs starting in December, he said.
He’s looking forward to finally being able to take a vacation, he said.
But he may not have the restaurant business totally out of his blood.
After taking a break he may keep an eye out for another location for a restaurant, if he can find a building to buy, rather than lease, at a reasonable price, he said.
Graze making plans
The current China Cafe building may go dark for about six months.
John Lastoskie, owner of Graze with his wife, Rebecca, said it may be June before he his ready to open what will be his second Kennewick spot.
Graze now serves fresh salads, soup, hot paninis and other sandwiches, at two Walla Walla locations, on George Washington Way in Richland and on Gage Boulevard across from Costco in Kennewick.
He liked the location of the Kennewick building he purchased near busy Highway 395, he said. Benton County records show a sale price of $1.23 million in July.
Graze can offer a healthy option with quick service as an alternative to the many national chain fast food restaurants in that area of Kennewick, Lastoskie said.
Tri-City Herald photojournalist Jennifer King contributed to this report.