House of Wong founder looks back as beloved Roseville restaurant nears 60


photo courtesy of Renee Proue • House of Wong founder Teddy Wong, center right, with his wife Laura and children Renee and John in 2003. Wong, 94 and a World War II vet, founded the beloved Roseville restaurant 60 years ago.

photo courtesy of Renee Proue • Teddy Wong, at House of Wong in 1958, with daughters Renee and Doreen.

photo courtesy of Renee Proue • Wong, right, in 1944 while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II with the 773 Amphibious Tank Battalion.

photo courtesy of Renee Proue • Laura at the House of Wong counter in the 1980s.

photo courtesy of Renee Proue • Wong was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II while he was a junior in high school and never graduated. In 2012, Fargo Central High School presented him with an honorary diploma based on a life full of lessons learned.

Mike Munzenrider • Teddy and Laura Wong at their Roseville home in May, 2018.

Teddy Wong downplays his legacy.

“I did OK,” he says, sitting at the dining room table of his Roseville home on a recent May afternoon with his wife, Laura, and daughter, Renee. “We opened a couple of restaurants.”

One of those restaurants, House of Wong, the beloved Roseville institution, will celebrate 60 years in business this October, giving Wong, 94 years old and a World War II veteran, a chance to reflect.

 

Fargo Cafe

Born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota, Wong says he “learned the art of cooking” at the Fargo Cafe. His father, who’d emigrated from China, owned one-eighth of the business, which opened in 1922 and was located at 65 Broadway.

The cafe’s menu, Wong says, included Western food with some “thoroughly Americanized Chinese food,” and, “when it became the popular season,” some lutefisk too.

Wong lived in Fargo until the early 1930s, when, at age 7 or 8, he went and lived in China near Hong Kong for the next five years, returning stateside in 1937.

“I couldn’t speak a single word of English [when I got back] so they stuck me in the fourth grade,” says Wong, noting that as a 13-year-old fourth-grader, he got back on track in short order.

Wong was attending Fargo Central High School when the U.S. entered the second world war.

“I was proud to serve the country,” says Wong. “I tried to enlist in the Navy but they said my eyesight wasn’t good enough ... of course, the Navy changed the [eyesight] standard but then I was already drafted [into the Army].”

Wong went from being a 19-year-old junior in high school to training for the Army in California and Oregon before shipping off to fight the Japanese in the Pacific.

 

The 773

He was a member of the 773 Amphibious Tank Battalion, and fought in the Marianas, the Philippines and Okinawa.

“Our job was storming beaches — we had a lot of landings at a lot of beaches,” Wong says, pointing out members of the 773 trained for all five tank positions, though he served as a communications officer in the captain’s tank with the company commander.

Wong says the mission was the same each time, to “achieve at least a mile inland but the resistance was stiff — we didn’t always make it that far.”

According to Wong, the 773 only lost half a dozen men — there were plenty of other casualties, though he was never injured. Renee has to prod her father to discuss what his war time experience was like.

“It was always scary,” he says. “You didn’t know what the hell you’d run into.”

Wong says perhaps the most frightening thing he experienced wasn’t during combat — it was the West Loch disaster at Pearl Harbor in 1944. “Something happened and everything blew up,” he says. The accident, which was kept secret by the U.S. government until the 1960s, happened during the staging for the invasion of the Mariana Islands and killed more than 160 people, injuring nearly 400.

Just more than a year after West Loch, in September, 1945, the war in the Pacific was officially over. “It was very jubilant. Then we were immediately dispatched to Japan,” Wong says. 

He spent three months as part of the occupation force, and then was shipped back to the U.S. 

Wong met Laura while back in China, and in 1948 the two were married in Hong Kong. He used his GI Bill benefits to easily bring her back to the states.

 

‘You can’t get rich like that’

Back in North Dakota, Wong went to work at the Fargo Cafe, having been given his father’s share in the restaurant.

“Eight partners divvied up the pie,” Wong says. “You can’t get rich like that.”

He and another WWII vet opened a place called the Pleasant Cafe, since, Wong points out, money is better split in just two ways. Soon, that partner bought him out. 

A man named Herbert Wong brought him and Laura in 1951 down to the Twin Cities, where they worked at a place called the Wong Cafe on Selby Avenue.

Come 1958, the two struck out on their own and opened House of Wong — “Nobody ever figured there’d be a name like that,” Wong jokes. The restaurant opened in the Roseville Center, at the corner of Larpenteur and Lexington avenues, and moved to its current location at the center three years later when it needed more space. 

Just a decade after incorporation, Wong remembers Roseville then as one of the “suburban little cities,” and the restaurant, at the shopping center, coexisted with a fruit and vegetable market.

Laura worked the front of the house, including take-out, which was roughly half the restaurant’s business, though, she says, “I’d almost do everything — I even cooked the chow mein one time.”

Wong says while there was the chow mein, it’s the “Western menu that really draws them in.” House of Wong has kept up with that mix to this day, boasting a menu of Chinese staples and American comfort food.

 

Life’s pursuit

Wong’s mother ran a smaller version of the restaurant in Minneapolis and at one time he had a stake in United Noodle, an Asian food wholesaler also located in Minneapolis.

Renee says her father never really had any hobbies though he enjoyed going on cruises — she says he was always a businessman. 

Wong jokes, perhaps with a bit of an edge, that he and Laura gave the restaurant to their children — two boys and two girls — “for nothing” after running it for 43 years. The two also have 10 grandchildren, with one great grandchild on the way.

The siblings have since sold House of Wong to another family that has worked there for some two decades, though Renee still manages the restaurant.

Wong isn’t sentimental about his life’s pursuit. Asked what he remembers most about it, he says, “It was hard work ... there was no such thing as looking at hours — you do what you need to do.”

Renee points out that her father did enjoy baking, experimenting in the kitchen. He’d make giant chocolate chip, almond, and oatmeal raisin cookies.

“Pastry was my specialty,” he says, with Renee mentioning that his pie crusts were excellent.

The previous humility shown for his life in the restaurant business cracks when Wong is asked about what goes into making a really great crust.

His answer? “Skill.”

 

– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813

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