Rob Fredrickson remembers first trying hum bow and shew my from his favorite Chinese restaurant in 1969 while teaching at Franklin High School. A group of students brought some...
Rob Fredrickson remembers first trying hum bow and shew my from his favorite Chinese restaurant in 1969 while teaching at Franklin High School. A group of students brought some back for him, and he asked where they got such tasty treats.
“They said, ‘At this little restaurant in Chinatown called King Cafe.’ To this day I think, bless every one of those students.”
And bless King Cafe, which will be shutting down Dec. 31 after 36 years as the neighborhood’s standard-bearer of the Cantonese dim-sum lunch. The historic building at 8th Avenue South and South King Street where the restaurant operates is being gutted to make way for the new Wing Luke Asian Museum, and the owners have opted to close before the restaurant is displaced, on its own terms and in its own way. True to form.
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Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Wednesdays. Cash only, no credit cards. Word-of-mouth, no advertising. Eleven tables upstairs, four down. Menu printed on folded orange paper, often stained. Food transported from kitchen to upstairs dining room via dumbwaiter. Orders communicated from wait staff to kitchen via shouts into an intercom. Dum Dum suckers handed to kids on their way out.
“Clearly, we’re not fancy,” said co-owner Millie Lew, who greets customers at the door from behind the cashier’s counter, between sneaking glimpses at “All My Children” on a 12-inch color TV with so-so reception.
The expressive Lew is the face of King Cafe, while her soft-spoken brother, Ming Fung (loyal customers know him as “Dennis”), toils in the kitchen, following his uncle’s recipes to almost obsessive perfection. If the ha gow (shrimp ball) isn’t quite right, it doesn’t get sold.
“I hand-do it all myself,” Fung said. “People say I should hire somebody and not work so hard. But it has to be done my way.”
King Cafe was founded in 1968 by the siblings’ uncle, Hoi Tin Lo, and their mother, Fannie Lew, as a one-level cafe with fewer than 10 tables. Their father, Edmond Lew, a chief maintenance engineer for an airline in San Francisco, retired in the early 1970s to join them, helping to expand the cafe upstairs and install the dumbwaiter and intercom.
For the past 10 years, the siblings have run the place, giving them an appreciation of how hard their uncle and parents worked. Millie Lew remembered a story about her mother once falling asleep in the kitchen while making ha gow, her head dropping to the table and squashing the shrimp balls. Back then, it was a joke. Now, she gets it.
Lew said King Cafe was the first restaurant in Seattle to offer a full menu of dim sum. While others have followed, King Cafe presents it differently than most, bringing small plates by on trays instead of wheeling them through the dining room on carts. King Cafe also is one of the few to offer single-serving portions of selected items, including hum bow, a steamed bun filled with barbecued pork.
“We’re a family restaurant so we try to accommodate,” Lew said. “I know it sounds corny, but we really do this from the heart. And the customers say that shows.”
While hum bow, ha gow, shew my (meat ball wrapped in thin dough) and other dim-sum favorites can be had elsewhere, King Cafe loyalists could pick out the restaurant’s versions in a lineup.
“I think it’s that the food hasn’t been Americanized,” said Rebecca Maryatt, who has been eating at King Cafe since it opened and dined there with her son earlier this week.
Regular customers are flocking to King Cafe this month as word has spread of the impending closure. At the cashier’s counter, where “31” on the calendar has been circled several times in blue ink, Lew asks customers to put their addresses and phone numbers in a notebook so she can notify them if she and her brother reopen elsewhere in a year or two — a possibility they have not rejected. So far, Lew has gathered 300 names.
“I’m happy that King Cafe is going out in this way — not with a whimper but with a bang, with all these people caring about us,” Lew said.
She said her parents and uncle, who have all passed, are looking down, happy that King Cafe customers know they are loved.
Jennifer Kokkonis, 31, said she plans to be at the restaurant with a big group of friends on the 31st. She started coming to King Cafe with her parents as a toddler and fondly recalls a former waiter who entertained kids by performing tricks with chopsticks. “King Cafe has been a mainstay in my life,” she said.
MayLing Chim is one of several customers planning to place a large order before the restaurant closes to take home and freeze.
Wait staff know what her family will order even before they are seated, telling the kitchen to make extra gin dau, a deep-fried sweet rice and lotus-paste ball rolled in sesame seed. When hot, just out of the fryer, Chim said, “It’s like biting into heaven.”
Last Sunday, a regular customer gave Lew a Christmas card signed by three generations of two families.
“We already feel the loss, the loss of our youth, the loss of tradition but in the same breath we feel oh so fortunate to have had such a place that made us feel like we were home,” said the card, which made Lew cry.
She knows more tears will come on the 31st.
“We are going to run out of food, I’m sure,” she said. “So we’ll just spend time saying goodbye, taking pictures with customers. I hope I don’t cry. I know I will. I just hope I won’t cry a lot.”
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org