Restaurateur Raymond Wong might be considered a grandfather of Chinese food in Detroit and Windsor, having brought some of the regional cuisines of China into an area that was used to Cantonese food — egg drop soup, chop suey and egg foo yung. After 40 years of owning and working in a succession of eateries, he has now found a home at Midtown Shangri-la offering sushi, dim sum and Chinese and Thai dishes.
Metro Times: What path did you follow after 20-plus years of running Wong's Eatery?
Raymond Wong: My old-time friend Tom Brandel from Tom's Oyster Bar had a restaurant on Franklin Road and Northwestern with a downstairs space that had 100 seats and a very, very small kitchen — a deep-fryer, a six-burner stove, an oven and a grill. He said he wanted a partnership with me. The restaurant [Pacific Grill] was doing OK until we got a write-up in the newspaper and we realized that we couldn't handle the volume. Eventually, I ended up at the Mon Jin Lau, then Wong's on Woodward until the year there was a power outage the weekend of the Dream Cruise. I had three large parties booked and we had tons of food. I got a semi with power, but somebody stole the cable. We lost thousands of dollars. I couldn't sleep for three days.
MT: When you first opened Wong's Eatery in Windsor in the early 1970s, most of the Chinese restaurants in the area served won ton soup, chop suey and egg foo yung. What came next?
Wong: Mandarin, Szechuan, Hunan and Shanghai style.
MT: We have Cantonese, Mandarin and Szechuan cuisine now. What others are popular in China and might be the next hits here?
Wong: Maybe Chiuchow and Hakka, but I don't know if the population here is big enough.
MT: Do you eat other ethnic foods?
Wong: I eat everything with four legs except the table. [laughs]
MT: You specialize in dim sum at the midtown Shangri-La in Detroit. What are the origins of dim sim?
Wong: Dim can be a "point." You know, when you point at something or you point at me. Sum means "heart." So it means "to your heart's delight" or "a point of my heart." It started maybe 700 or 800 years ago when Mongolians were conquering China, and the general with his army with his soldiers was defending the country on the front. His wife really appreciated that the soldiers were fighting so hard day and night; they stayed on the front lines, so she brought some small things that they can eat without having to sit down. So all the dim sum are small things you can pick up and eat. Some of them are wrapped so they won't spoil, like lotus beef.
MT: Are there chefs who specialize in dim sum?
Wong: Oh, yes, of course. Dim sum is very specialized, like sushi. Some people start learning when they get here, but the better ones are trained like the good old days, because in the good old days — like the sushi chefs too — you had to go through a very tough regimen: sweeping the floor first, washing pots and pans, cooking rice, upgrading to mixing dough, and then to chopping and then mixing the flavors. You have to take the steps. In the good old days they didn't train you right away. Right now they start at a cooking school.
MT: Are there any Chinese cooking schools in the United States?
Wong: I think in San Francisco and New York, but also in Chinese associations they have classes to teach people, mostly families, to learn how to make dim sum, mostly on Saturdays or maybe Sundays for two hours; they make different kind of dim sum every week.
MT: Do you cook?
Wong: I do cook at shows, like at Novi Expo Center, where I teach people to cook dishes at home that almost taste like restaurant food. You know, the problem with cooking Chinese food at home is that you don't have enough BTUs. I tell them to get the heaviest cast-iron pans and use all the burners. When you do that, you can get the sauce hot, get the meat blanched or quickly sauté small portions in two pans. When you put them together, they will not get steamed. They will be sautéed. That's the trick. Don't try to cook a lot. Try to cook a little bit less. That's an old trick.
MT: Do you cook at home?
Wong: Right now, I don't have a chance, but when I do I cut everything very small because I'm a Virgo, very particular. I always consider myself like a conductor. I kind of know everything, but I don't really know anything. I don't really know how to do it. I just try to think like an orchestra.
MT: Have you ever served anything that stands out in your memory?
Wong: I once cooked a 32-pound lobster. The darn thing hung over a 6-foot table. I had to use a saw to open the shell. I made a 10-course dinner for 30 people. Part of the tail we do shabu-shabu. Part of the tail we do sashimi. We do stir-fry. We make spring rolls. We make steamed coral with salted eggs. And the green part we do with scrambled egg. We make soup with the shell.
MT: How do you view the present economy affecting the restaurant business?
Wong: One thing I learned is that when you're good, you'll be able to more than survive. I think that the economy is finally turning around a little bit. If you stay consistent and your service is OK and your food is OK and you price it right, you'll do OK.
Raymond can be found at Midtown Shangri-La, 4710-12 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-974-7667.
Chinese Shrimp Stir-Fry
Courtesy Raymond Wong; serves four.
1 pound shelled and de-veined medium shrimp
12 ounces baby bok choy cut in halves lengthwise
1 large onion cut in half and thinly sliced
4 ounces julienned red pepper
4 ounces julienned yellow pepper
4 ounces shiitake mushroom caps thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves thinly sliced
3 tablespoons fresh ginger peeled and finely julienned
2 jalapeño peppers sliced into thin rings
3 scallions cut into 1-1/2-inch length
2 tablespoons canola/olive/peanut oil
1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine
For sauce, mix ingredients well
1 cup of warm seafood stock or chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon low-sodium
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/2-tablespoon hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons corn starch dissolved in 3 tablespoons of the stock
Heat a large heavy cast iron skillet until very hot, about 5 minutes.
Add oil and ginger, cook for 10 seconds, then jalapeño pepper and sliced onion and the white part of scallion for 20 seconds until fragrant.
Add garlic and shiitake mushrooms and stir-fry for 3 minutes until lightly brown.
Add cooking wine, then bok choy and red and yellow peppers and shrimps. Cook for 3 minutes until pink.
Stir in the sauce for 2 minutes and add the cornstarch solution, stir and cook until sauce thickens.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer to a large plate and serve with rice.
For meat and poultry lovers, substitute the shrimp with protein of your choice.
For vegetarians or vegans, substitute shrimp with tofu, and substitute oyster sauce with same amount of low sodium soy.Jeff Broder interviews food folks for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]