Absence makes the customers grow fonder, as May and Eddie Chan are finding out. When they recently re-opened their trademark Café Chino at its sparking new spot on the Southwest Freeway at Edloe, grateful longtime diners – who had nowhere to go for the Chans’ distinctive Hunan and Pan Asian cuisine, after they shuttered their long-time Rice Village location in July of 2009, are flocking in for their food like long-lost family members. For more information on May and Eddie Chan and Café Chino, 3285 Southwest Freeway, please visit CafeChinoHouston.com or call 713-524-4433.
Almost breathless in their relief, they greet Eddie warmly and make an urgent beeline to one of the oak dining tables in the comfortable interior, created by Kathy Heard of OPEN Restaurant Design/Build, to shorten their months-long wait, if only by minutes.
“It’s funny – I had one woman come in and apologize for not getting here sooner because she’d been on vacation in Italy for two months,” Eddie chuckles. He’s gotten to know his customers during the Chans’ 21 years (1988-2009) in Rice Village, and he generally knows what they want to order before they even sit down. He’s watched children grow up eating at his restaurant and has seen them return with their own children to begin their early appreciation of the Chans’ cooking.
The Chans’ light, fresh signature take on their cuisine has drawn wide acclaim. Eddie has been named one of North America’s Outstanding Chefs by Chefs in America and was named Outstanding American Chef by John Mariani in USA Today. In 2004, The New York Times’ David Rosengarten called Café Chino the Best Hunan Restaurant in the United States and raved about May’s Pan Asian menu. H Texas magazine gave May Chan its 2003 Best Chef of the Year Award after she introduced her own menu at Café Chino – a result of attending the Houston Community College culinary program. The Chans are continuing that fine tradition, just in a different place, which opened in mid-October 2009 to the sounds of traffic whizzing by outside on the freeway. That close proximity to so many potential customers gives Eddie confidence in this new endeavour, even in a troubled economy.
After all, he chuckles, Houston was barely showing signs of life after the oil bust when he and May christened the first Café Chino in Rice Village in 1988, the success of which allowed them to expand Café Chino operations to the downtown tunnel in 1992, followed by L’Asiatique, Romeo’s Burgers, Chino Chino Sushi & Dim Sum Bar and Pacific Rim, which was named by the Houston Chronicle’s restaurant critic in 1998 as the year’s new best restaurant.
“We’re in the same situation now as when we opened the first Café Chino,” he says.
The restaurant’s modern décor is splashed with the sun at times, thanks to the tall, generous windows that give the restaurant such a spacious feel. The updated look still contains one item veteran customers will recognize: the antique, pearl-encrusted red Chinese wedding gown that graced the entryway of his old location.
Eddie’s approach to operating Café Chino is providing good service, being courteous to his customers and using the freshest ingredients and the best meats available. His wife’s philosophy is applying her passion for cooking to the operations in their fast-paced kitchen. And their greatest collaboration is their marriage.
Eddie says his greatest honour is being married to May for 36 years. They have three sons, Randall, Edmond and Bryan, who also work in the family restaurant.
The two have spent 28 years working together, first at Uncle Tai’s in Houston, where Eddie moved up from busboy to the manager in four years, and where May was the first female captain. In 1988, the culinary couple opened the Rice Village Café Chino. After culinary school, May joined the Houston Country Club as its first Asian female chef, before becoming a private chef for a local family. With the opening of the new Café Chino, she’s returned to work alongside her husband.
It’s been that way since not long after she met Eddie in 1972 when he was on a break between college semesters at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and was visiting his parents at their restaurant in Webster, Texas, The House of Chan. She was a local high school senior, who came to the restaurant to pick up her mother, a part-time kitchen helper. Eddie says he was in love as soon as he caught May’s eye.
He returned to college but moved back six months later to be with her. They married when he was 21 and she was 19.
Eddie’s grandfather moved to the United States in 1890 at age 18, labouring on the California railroad in the San Francisco area. He saved up enough money to open a pawnshop there and later sent money for Eddie’s father to open a restaurant in San Paulo, Brazil, during the tumultuous struggle between communist factions seeking to grab control of China. His parents had previously fled to Hong Kong, where Eddie was born in 1952, and the family was reunited in San Francisco in 1967 when Eddie was 15. The Chan clan eventually landed in Houston.
And Café Chino customers are glad they did. Another dining party enters, looking around for Eddie to shake his hand. Then, they waste no time finding a table.