Texas culinary arts school students may have heard the big news back in December 2013 when Ronald Cheng, owner of the Chinatown restaurant, announced plans to open a third location in Lakewood. Cheng got hard to work straight away, and the locally beloved establishment is already open for business.
According to the Eater, Chinatown’s new location officially opened over the third weekend of May 2014. But it’s not actually a new location – what many may not realize is that the local eatery first got its start 30 years ago in this Austin neighborhood in the exact same building at 2712 Bee Cave Road. Cheng first opened Chinatown here in 1983, but later expanded and moved to more prosperous spots in downtown Austin: one on East 5th street and another at Greystone Drive and Mopac Expressway.
Austin culinary arts school students may be interested to hear that Cheng got his start in the culinary arts. The owner, who plays a strong role in the city’s dining scene, began as a cook in his mother’s Chinese restaurant in 1970. It was only the third Chinese eatery Austin has seen, and it was a tiny restaurant (that doubled as the family’s home) with only five tables and a home stove. With time and effort, the restaurant blossomed, encouraging Cheng to go on to do great things for the food community of Austin.
When he opened his first Chinatown on Bee Cave Road, Cheng modeled it after Wolfgang Puck’s first restaurant, Chinois. But the city wasn’t ready for this type of Asian-French-American fusion, so the owner eventually changed it to El Chino’s in 1990, bringing Chinese-Mexican fusion to Austin with dishes like moo shu fajitas and taquito egg rolls.
Cheng considers the return to this location a triumphant success, but he recognizes the difficulties that lay ahead. Westlake is a notoriously difficult area to run a restaurant, since many of its residents tend to leave the neighborhood when dining out. He believes Chinatown’s role in the city’s history will play a big part in attracting customers, and he’s switching things up with this reopening: Rather than fusion fare and stir fry, the establishment will focus on traditional, pan-seared Chinese food. So visitors will find regional and authentic foods that may not be common in America. And Cheng plans on utilizing locally grown foods for his dishes. Since many of the menu options will rely on what produce, meats and fish are available at the time, the establishment will offer mostly specials that rotate regularly.
The Austin Chronicle took a first look into the restaurant, which Cheng jumped at the chance to own once again when he learned it was available.
“When one of my former employees told me the restaurant here had failed and the building was available, I decided that since I’d been given this new chance at life, I would make something great again in this building,” Cheng said.
The new decor is based on a rich red and black color scheme with slightly oriental adornments. It has a spacious dining room, full bar, fully stocked wine racks and a private dining room for special events. The new menu has some old Chinatown favorites, but the new dishes are the highlight – items like crispy duck pie with green onions and grilled loin-cut lamb chops with lemongrass and ginger.
“Westerners may not recognize some of the things we’ll be doing, but I’m going to try to educate them about dishes from Chinese provinces they may not know,” he told the Austin Chronicle.