The Dragon House is closing, and many people are sad.
Customer Emily Goldsberry, for instance, said her father–retired Columbia Heights police officer Rollin Goldsberry–introduced her to the popular Chinese restaurant when she was a child. “I think I’ve had everything on their menu. In 36 years, I’ve never had a bad meal there. I love their shrimp fried rice and all their appetizers. I’m setting up dates with my friends to eat there before they close. I’m really going to miss them. I’m sad for me and sad for my stomach,” she said.
The Dragon House has been in the same spot at 3970 Central Ave. NE since 1972. Founded by the late Joseph Wai Kwong and his wife Fee Kon Kwong (who is 96 years old), their children Anita, Andy, Maggie, Peter and Christopher Paul have all worked there. But as Andy said last week, “Everything has a starting point and an ending point. We’re all getting old. The restaurant kind of ran its course. It’s the right time to get out, while we still have our health.”
Peter, the general manager, said that the Dragon House was the first Chinese restaurant in Columbia Heights. They started with a smaller space and had eight tables. “The entrance was on Central Avenue, and there were two picture windows. Then we bought the building next door, where there was a café, and expanded south. We bought another small strip to the north and expanded the entryway. Now we can seat 150 people.”
Early on, both parents worked in other restaurants. “Our uncle, Billy Wong, owned the Fireside Rice Bowl in Fridley, and our mother used to work there. Our dad worked at Nankin in downtown Minneapolis at Seventh and Hennepin. They called him the Chow Mein King,” Andy said.
Fee Kon Kwong did all the cooking when the Dragon House opened. “She was the first cook. She cooked everything. She knows all the Chinese recipes. Up to a couple of years ago, she cooked for all the cooks. Now, we cook for her.”
Peter, who was in high school, said he “pretty much worked here full time. I would be doing my homework and taking orders. We worked weekends, when everyone else was having fun.”
The brothers said that their recipes have evolved through the years. “There were Germans and Scandinavians here. In the beginning, we served Americanized Chinese food. The early Chinese immigrants, who came here in the 1930s and 1940s, found that many ingredients they needed were unavailable. That’s why they developed things like chow mein, with crispy noodles. You can’t find that in Hong Kong,” Andy said.
Peter added, “People’s palates are more sophisticated now. We have developed a lot of recipes here and they have changed. Our cream cheese won ton recipe is special. In the early 1990s we added Szechuan; before that, we didn’t have anything hot and spicy. Szechuan food has more complex flavors.” They said their most popular dishes are lo mein, cream cheese won tons, sesame chicken, chow mein, fried rice and egg rolls. Through the years they have hosted many special occasions in their dining room, including weddings, funerals, and parties.
“We’ve had the Columbia Heights city employee Christmas party here. We’ve done catering at Murzyn Hall and at nursing homes. We try to say yes to whatever people ask for,” Andy said.
They started the buffet lunch in the restaurant’s heydays in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Columbia Heights office building across the street was full of tenants such as FMC, Barna Guzy Law Offices, and Northeast Bank. “The employees would come here, and they wanted to eat lunch in a hurry. At the time, there were not many buffets in the Twin Cities.” Peter said they also started doing deliveries. “We realized that delivery was the way to go.” Their delivery area included parts of New Brighton, Northeast Minneapolis, and Fridley.
Columbia Heights has been a good location for them, they said. “It’s a good site in a small community of friendly, close-knit people,” Peter said. “It’s a nice community to be in. We kind of stumbled onto it.”
They agreed, though, that they won’t miss all the hard work. “It’s a very stressful environment,” Peter said. “You work hard, there is less profit, and there is always competition. In the beginning, we were open seven days a week. It was tough. We felt like we were robots. It was non-stop, but you had to work like that back then.” Andy added, “We focused on customer service, and we like to keep a clean environment.” Nineteen years ago, the family decided to close the restaurant on Sundays.
The family background
The Kwongs came to the United States in 1967; Billy Wong sponsored them. “None of us knew any English,” Peter said. “We moved to Fridley first, and then Columbia Heights, where we lived at 4127 Central Avenue. We all went to Columbia Heights Schools.” Andy went into the U.S. Army in 1970. “I was on my way to Viet Nam, but the troops were withdrawing, so I went to South Korea instead. I didn’t see any action. I came home in 1973, went to school, and got hired at 3M. I retired from there in 2015, after 39 years.”
Both Peter and Christopher Paul own other businesses. Peter has taught martial arts classes for years at the New Brighton Community Center and will soon open a new martial arts studio, MKG North Martial Arts, in Fridley. “We will have kids’ classes, zumba, yoga, t’ai chi, and women’s kickboxing.” He said he also conducts seminars in martial arts, and has flown to Mexico to train Mexican special forces and military police.
Christopher owns the 37th and Johnson Hair and Tanning Salon.
Andy said, “Anita, who handles all the prep, is looking forward to full-time retirement. She has lots of grandkids. Peter will jump into his new business, and Maggie has a hobby farm.” Although a few years ago, their mother said she didn’t want to sell because the expansion had been “part of our father’s dream,” she has now accepted the idea.
The other employees, a dishwasher and two cooks, have already found other jobs, Peter added. Jose Diaz has been cooking there since 2001, Michael Phong, cooking at Dragon House since 2014 and Matthew Yurick has been their dishwasher since 2008.
Andy said, “We always have had old reliable customers. We’ve had generations of families coming to the restaurant, and we know a lot of people on a first name basis. I’ll really miss the customers.”
Loyal customer Linda Gerdin, who lives in Columbia Heights, said that she and her husband Bryan try to go to the Dragon House every week. “Our two daughters, Jill and Gina, worked there for years. In fact, our oldest daughter put herself through college by working there. They [the Kwongs] are the best people to have your daughters work for. They’re like a family to us. Also, the food is fantastic. We’ve had so many events there. We had our reception there, and we celebrated everybody’s birthday at the Dragon House. We are pretty sad that they are closing, and we will miss them. I’m happy for them, though; they have worked so hard.”
Julienne Wyckoff, former Columbia Heights mayor, said that she has filled in there as a waitress for years. “They serve more than 400 chow mein dinners a week. They have so many regular customers, some are third generation.” Her favorite meal, she added, is Szechuan sauce and black beans.
The sale of the restaurant is in its final stages; although the Kwongs did not want to disclose the future owners until all paperwork is completed, they said that it will not be another Chinese restaurant. Peter Kwong said their last day of operations would be July 8, and to watch their Facebook page.
Peter said, “People have been asking for our recipes. We’ve been thinking of doing some recipes and putting them on You Tube.”
Below: Christopher Paul Kwong, Andy Kwong, Peter Kwong (Photo by Gail Olson)