A Chinese Constant

For 43 years, the family behind Lotus Garden has watched Tucson grow—and tastes change

In February 1968, when Lotus Garden opened its doors for business, there wasn't much to be found near the intersection of Speedway Boulevard and Wilmot Road.

"We were the farthest-east restaurant in Tucson," said Darryl Wong, today the chef and owner of his family's Lotus Garden Chinese restaurant. "Where Speedway and Wilmot ended is where the pavement ended. Everything beyond that was desert."

Lotus Garden was opened by Thomas and Lillian Wong, Darryl's parents. Today, Lotus Garden is Tucson's oldest Chinese restaurant that's been run continuously by the same family. Darryl, 47, is the chef. His brother, Dan, 52, is active in the day-to-day workings.

It's not uncommon for Darryl to put in a 14-hour day. Dan often comes in after his computer-programming day job. Meanwhile, their parents have stepped back, at least a little bit.

"My father is fully retired; my mother is semi-retired. She still does her seven days, but she does it in three- to-four-hour increments," said Darryl.

Thomas is 84; Lillian is 78.

Hard work is the hallmark by which the Wong family built their successful restaurant. Wong's uncle, Chuck Gin, was a Chinese American who served in China during World War II. There, he met a woman and married her. They returned to the United States, where his parents ran a tiny neighborhood market (currently the Anita Street Market).

The woman's brother, Darryl's father, wanted to come to America; however, he did not have enough money. The Gins were looking to retire, so a deal was made: Thomas would come to Tucson and work at the store—not for a salary, but to eventually take ownership of the store.

The hours were long and hard. "In those days, you had to open at 7 (a.m.), and you didn't close until 11 (p.m.), and then after that, you had to stock," Darryl said.

Yes, the days were long, but eventually, the store belonged to Thomas.

When Thomas decided he was ready for a wife, friends arranged for him to meet Lillian, who lived in Detroit. He warned her that their work would be hard, and that there would be many sacrifices to make if she wanted to be his wife. Lillian said yes.

Lillian and Thomas ran the market for several years, but times were changing, due in part to the increasing plethora of convenience stores. Raising three kids on the income was getting more challenging; they needed to do something else, and both of them had some restaurant experience.

"They happened to find out that this property was available. It used to be a barbecue place," said Darryl.

Thomas applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration.

"Dad was the second person to get an SBA loan in those days," Darryl said. Ten years later, the Wongs had that loan completely paid off.

"We're right out of the American dream," said Darryl, adding, "Nothing comes without hard work. ... I've been working here since I was 4 ... helping my uncle, who was cooking in the kitchen, helping the waitresses bus tables, helping in the back shucking snow peas. We did a lot of things; everyone was actively involved."

Because the elder Wongs' English was limited, it was always up to the kids to help with the paperwork.

Eventually, all three of Lillian and Thomas' children earned college degrees. Darryl has a degree in business management from the UA. He currently does a little culinary teaching at Pima Community College.

The menu when Lotus Garden opened was like that at most Chinese restaurants in America: strictly Cantonese. Starting in the late '70s, diplomatic doors to China opened, and students and business people from all over China started traveling to America. They brought with them their taste for spicier, Szechwan-style food.

The kitchen at Lotus Garden adapted. These days, both Cantonese and Szechwan food are on the menu. Darryl honors the past, but knows that in order to succeed, he has to keep up with culinary times.

"More people are more sophisticated," he said, "They want to see something other than kung pao chicken or cashew chicken. They want different dishes that are more unique, dishes they haven't seen before."

Darryl offers various dinner programs in which diners can "truly eat what I call home cooking. If you're a foodie, by all means, get into those. It's Chinese-style comfort food."

These include special dinners for Chinese holidays. (Visit the restaurant's website for the latest information.)

Other "modern" additions include a lengthy wine list, complete with suggestions to help educate customers on proper pairings. There is a wine and fine liquor store at the front of the restaurant with an amazing array of choices. There is a gift shop, and Lotus Garden is a part of Tucson Originals.

Back when the restaurant opened, food allergies were not a part of the scene. That's changed, of course, and because 80 percent of the food at Lotus Garden is cooked to order, with a minimum of prepackaged ingredients, diners can have most dishes any way they want.

Cosmetic changes are also in the works. The patio is being updated, and there are plans to redo parts of the front of the building. The dining area is regularly freshened with new coats of paint. New menu items will no doubt also appear on a regular basis.

"We've been through a lot of changes in 43 years. We've seen many generations go by. This new generation—we're constantly changing," said Darryl.

While he admits that running a restaurant is more challenging these days than it was back when he was shelling snow peas and whatnot, there is no doubt that the Wong family is up to the task.

And of course, some things haven't changed.

"Most of our employees have been with us for a long time. We've had people working here for well over 20 years," said Darryl. "(Customers) want to see familiar faces—they know what you want; they know what youlike."

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