Seattle’s International District lost an influential man last month. Wai Chow Eng created a family legacy of delicious Chinese barbecue cuisine and touched the lives of many through his generosity and entrepreneurial spirit.
After a fall in November 2012, Eng, who suffered from dementia and a heart condition, died on January 4. He was 83.
“My dad built this restaurant…so it’s special [to me],” said Eng’s daughter, Lynn Eng-Chang, who took over the restaurant with her husband, Richard Chang, in 2003.
On the corner of South King Street and Maynard Avenue South, a few blocks from Seattle’s historic Chinatown Gate, sits the iconic Kau Kau BBQ Market & Restaurant that Eng proudly opened in 1974.
“We would often go up to Vancouver as kids to get Chinese barbecue because they didn’t have it in Seattle. My father would always ask, ‘why don’t we have it in Seattle so we don’t have to travel so far? Let’s open one!’” recalled Eng-Chang.
The restaurant became an instant success and was Seattle’s first Chinese barbecue eatery since WWII. Eng, who moved to Seattle from Guangdong, China, named the restaurant “Kau Kau” (Hawaiian for “good food”) in honor his grandfather and great grandfather who worked in Hawaii’s pineapple fields.
After tasting Kau Kau’s most popular dish—the barbecue pork—I understand why the restaurant attracts a “couple hundred” people a day, according to Chang. The succulent pork is moist with a crunchy, sweet red crust.
“Everything is cooked fresh every day. Eng always said, ‘the customer will come back if you don’t have enough, but they will never come back if you sell leftover food that doesn’t taste good,’” explained Chang.
Traditionally, Chinese barbecue pork was eaten during celebrations and is red to symbolize good luck. The family recipe is over fifty years old and is quite a commodity. Chang says a regular once offered him $200,000 for the Kau Kau recipe.
He jokingly remembered his response: “No. Still not going to sell it to you! You just keep asking, maybe one day!”
The eatery attracts generations of families from all parts of the greater Seattle area. “I would love to continue the Kau Kau legacy,” he said, referring to his hopes of expanding into Bellevue, North Seattle and Renton.
“I think it’s been really neat to see the third, fourth generation of families come in. They’ll tell me their history of when they came in with their father and their grandparents,” added Eng-Chang.
Restaurateur Dave DeVarona, who founded Blue Water Taco Grill said: “I’ve been coming here for 38 years with my boys. I probably come at least once a week, sometimes twice… It’s a real honest place…it’s a real contribution to what’s going on around here…it’s hard to go to any other place.”
Wai Chow Eng’s generosity extended far beyond his restaurant and home. The Chinese community and Mayor of Seattle recognized him for revitalizing the International District when he transformed an old hotel into retail space and apartment buildings.
Eng, who served as President and World President of the ancestral Eng Family Association, was known as a bridge between China and the U.S.: “The Embassy of China wrote a letter when he passed away sending their condolences and saying the community is not the same without him,” said Chang.
Eng remained active in the community and restaurant even in his retired years. At age 74, he helped manage operations in the Eng Suey Sun Plaza building he constructed for the Eng Family Association.
“Once he sold the business, every day at 10 a.m. he’d come in. He’d always give me a little bit of grief: ‘the barbecue pork is not perfect today, Richard. It’s a tad off’,” joked Chang, “At the end, he made me a better businessperson and human being.”
In 2011, after the death of his wife, Sandra—Eng’s health worsened, and he reluctantly moved in to an assisted living facility. He enjoyed living close to Kau Kau, and would walk the two blocks to the restaurant almost every day for tea and fortune cookies with his daughter.
“I do cherish the last few months I was able to see him almost every day,” she said.
Lynn Eng-Chang hopes to keep her father’s legacy alive by helping community projects that her father would have supported.
Mr. Chang is trying to convince Lynn to expand the business: “We need to follow the legacy dad left behind. He always wanted to open a couple more [restaurants] but he didn’t have the chance to,” he said, “I always tell people if I can achieve one-fourth of what he achieved, I’d be very proud.”
Eng-Chang added, “he was a really strong-minded man. He was a great leader, he was very community-minded and he was visionary.”