Meet the Maker: King's Restaurant rolls with the times as the business is handed down to the next generation
SHELLEY BOETTCHER, SWERVE
Published on: December 1, 2017
Angela Chuy grew up in their parents’ restaurant. She helped clear tables, manned the till, and helped stuff thousands of its famous little won tons. But she never intended to buy it. After university she became a commercial banker, but people kept asking her if she’d ever eaten at King’s Restaurant. “The food’s so good,” they’d tell her. “They have the best won tons. If you’re Chinese, you really have to try it.”
The first time it happened, she thought it was funny; the second, mildly amusing. But after a dozen or so instances, she realized her parents had a good thing going—something she could still be a part of. “It’s funny how the universe talks to you sometimes,” she says.
Chuy and her sister, Christina Lee, are the new generation behind King’s Restaurant. One of the city’s best-known Chinese restaurants, the “home of wor won ton” celebrates its 37th anniversary this year with a new focus on the Edmonton Trail location. (In November, the Barlow Trail location, which had been hit by rising rent and taxes, was closed.)
The story behind King’s is long, and criss-crosses continents. Chuy’s parents, Jose Alfredo and Nellie, met as teenagers in Hong Kong in the 1950s. Nellie attended nursing school in England. Jose Alfredo travelled to Guatemala where his father owned a clothing manufacturer and a yarn business. Nellie eventually married Jose Alfredo and followed him to Guatemala. Angela and her sister were born there. (Their brother, Alexander, was born in Los Angeles.)
Guatemala, however, was in the midst of a civil war, and the family was targeted because they were business owners. “We had friends who were killed, and their stores were stormed,” Angela says. “My dad thought, ‘I want to keep the family together and I want to keep them safe.’”
Returning to Hong Kong wasn’t an option, so the family moved to Calgary, where Jose Alfredo’s brother lived. Their new city was, to put it mildly, a shock. “I always say my life in Guatemala City was a Technicolor coat, but moving to Calgary in late October was monochromatic grey,” Angela says.
Jose Alfredo tried his hand at becoming a realtor, but the province was in the midst of a recession. Then, in 1980, he heard about a restaurant named King’s for sale on Barlow Trail. Masters of reinvention, he and Nellie perfected their recipes and went into business.
Almost from Day 1, the wor won ton soup was a hit, as was the spicy Heavenly Hot Sauce. At its height on Barlow Trail, the restaurant had lineups out the door every lunch hour, winter and summer. But times change. When Christina and Angela bought their parents’ business in 2002, Jose Alfredo and Nellie retired, although they still pop in for a meal from time to time. Chuy got married, had kids of her own and created Wonton King, an offshoot business offering an abbreviated menu, with her uncle, John Chu.
What hasn’t changed is that she still eats won tons almost every day. “Won tons represent pockets of fortune and good luck,” Chuy says. “If you eat them collectively as a family, you’re wishing each other prosperity and abundance.” Plus, she adds, “they taste good.”
808 Edmonton Tr. N.E., 403-475-7781, kingsrestaurant.net.
Rolling in tradition
Wonton King has three locations in Calgary and makes some 1.5 million won tons and spring rolls annually. The team—four or five people, depending on the day—makes everything by hand, the same way things have been done for the past 37 years.