Wing Yee is the son of David Leong, the creator of Springfield-style Cashew Chicken.
Scott, from work, and Aunt Miranda and I have all been chasing down rumors about the beginnings of cashew chicken for the last week. Aunt Miranda came across the final clue, an article from last year in 417 magazine that mentioned Wing Yee as being the Executive Chef for a newish restaurant called Fire & Ice. I tracked down the web site for the restaurant, he was still shown as the Executive Chef, and it mentioned that Chef Leong has a signature special every Wednesday of, you guessed it, Cashew Chicken from his father's recipe.
Guess what yesterday was? WEDNESDAY!!!!
Aunt Miranda and I hotfooted it across town for a late lunch and our timing was perfect, later in the lunch hours so that there were still diners there but the restaurant was winding down for the slower afternoon shift. When we asked our server if the Chef was really the son of David Leong, she confirmed it. When we started firing the rumors at her to confirm she kept saying "I don't know" and then said "You know what? Wing Yee is here today. Let me send him out to you if he's not busy."
First off, he's a very nice man, modest, charming, warm, and very easy to talk to. As bored as you know he must be with telling the story, he did anyway. He confirmed that there was a Dr. Tsang (not Wong or Fong, but pronounced "song", so it was a close rhyme) who was the first neurosurgeon here but he and David Leong were not related. Dr. Tsang frequented Leong's restaurant in Pensacola Florida and somehow convinced him to pack up his family and move to Springfield Missouri. David worked at a couple of restaurants before opening his own restaurant, Leong's Tea House and hired his brother, Gee, who later opened Gee's East Wind. The originator of the Cashew Chicken recipe was, indeed,David Leong himself while he worked at a restaurant called The Grove, before opening the Teah House. The Grove sold mostly American food with a little Asian cuisine thrown in here and there until Chef Leong put together his signature "Southern Fried Cashew Chicken", now known as "Springfield style Cashew Chicken". The tables turned and The Grove began selling mostly Asian food, or hybrid in this case, and less American food. It was so popular at The Grove that it was an instant hit at the Tea House. Later, Gee took the dish with him to also be on the menu at East Wind.
Now there is a proliferation of cashew chicken made Leong style everywhere in this city and the small surrounding towns but let me tell you something. We had the original cashew chicken today, as well as bringing the sweet and sour chicken home to Gene, and none of the other restaurants hold a candle next to the orginal. The sweet and sour, with chicken made in the same battered and fried manner, will break me from ever ordering it from any other restaurant again. The sauce is killer. Not too sweet, not too sour, and with a tiny bite of hot, it's the perfect accopaniment to the chicken and the fresh pineapple, sweet peppers, and carrots generously garnishing the top. As I said about the crepe torte, this dish is fab-oh-lust.
The restaurant where Wing Yee is Executive Chef, Fire & Ice, is also top notch. Cashew Chicken may be considered fast food in this town but the way Wing Yee prepares and presents it is not, and his entire menu is beautiful. Aunt Miranda ordered the cashew chicken, I ordered Phad Thai, which was wonderful, and we switched halfway through the meal. Yum! Here's a link to the entire menu. I'm not even going to try to quote it back. I'll forget half of the good stuff. Click here: Fire & Ice menu. Rachel, our waitress mentioned that they have a new menu starting next week, bringing out more specialties of the Chef. Most excellent. We can't wait. Aunt Miranda and I already have a date in two weeks to go back (on Wednesday, of course) to check out the new menu. Chef Leong was also kind enough to say that he'd only told us a fraction of the story and that if we wanted to stop by sometime in the late afternoon he'd be happy to tell us more about his and his father's career. That's a date too. I'll be hanging out for a while on Wednesday in two weeks. I'm fascinated by the story.
Here are some pics of the restaurant itself:
By the way, not only were there some sports TV's, Aunt Miranda and I laughed but were really pleased to see the Food Network on one of the TV's. Hey, a little something for everyone.
The bar, separating the dining room from the open kitchen is the first "ice" bar in Springfield. Curved, it literally has a strip of ice along the back to keep the drinks chilled. This photo isn't great but you get the idea:
Don't laugh but I forgot to photograph the food! Well, I remembered but not until we'd already tucked in so keep that in mind when you see these pics. The food WAS very nicely plated:
Miranda's Cashew Chicken and egg roll:
My Phad Thai after I had demolished all the prettiness. It was attractively arranged with egg in strips across the top:
What a great afternoon spending time with Aunt Miranda and getting to meet Wing Yee. Some days are just golden.
Fire & Ice is located inside the Oasis Hotel on North Glenstone. Their hours are 11am-10pm Monday thru Thursday, 11am-11pm Fri & Sat. They are not open on Sunday. Click HERE for their website.
For more information about David Leong, click HERE for a Springfield News-Leader article from last year.
For a vegan (seriously!) version of Springfield cashew chicken, click HERE, from Noel Green.com blog.