Seattle’s oldest Chinese restaurants serve up edible history

Harry Chan, third generation owner of Tai Tung restaurant, the oldest running Chinese restaurant in Chinatown-International District. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Harry Chan, third generation owner of Tai Tung restaurant, the oldest running Chinese restaurant in Chinatown-International District. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

There aren’t many places in Seattle that haven’t changed at all in my lifetime. But walking into Tai Tung restaurant in the Chinatown-International District is like stepping out of a time machine.

There’s the wood paneling, mauve upholstery and thick laminate menu I remember from special dinners out with my family as a child. But the restaurant’s history runs much deeper than that.

“The door that you just walked through, that swinging door? That door is 80 some years old,” says Siang Hui Tay, who adds that the restaurant opened in 1935 and is the oldest remaining Chinese restaurant in neighborhood.

Tay would know. Inspired by the history of Tai Tung, she and her partner Val Tan have co-produced “A Taste Of Home,” a documentary showcasing local Chinese-American culinary history, which will play opening night of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival next week.

But it wasn’t the restaurant’s door, historic lunch counter or Bruce Lee’s favorite table (he was a regular) that first attracted the filmmaking duo, who work under the brand “Tay & Val.” It was the food — specifically Chinese comfort food from their home country of Singapore.

“We were looking for a taste of home,” says Tan, who was hoping for a taste of her grandmother’s egg foo young and “Yelped” her way to Tai Tung, which is famous for the dish.

What she found there wasn’t the recipe she grew up with. She says the Singaporean version she knows is more of a shrimp scramble than a gravy-topped omelet. But the experience sparked an interest in the history of Chinese-American food of our region and introduced her to Harry Chan.

Chan is a third generation owner of Tai Tung. He’s worked at the restaurant since 1968. In addition to being the devoted boss (he boasts that he keeps a sleeping bag at the ready so he can be sure to open even on snow days), he’s also an expert on the evolution of food in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

“They ate pig feet and pig tails, ox tails, salmon head, peashoot vegetables steamed with pork, preserved pimento,” says Chan listing off some of the popular dishes once served by his grandfather.

You won’t find all of those items on the menu today, but there are a few dishes that have remained unchanged since the restaurant’s opening day.

“It’s all going to, at some point, disappear.”

I ordered “Combination #1” as featured in “A Taste Of Home.” The spareribs were sweet and tender, the pork chow mien fresh and savory and the egg foo young pillowing light and deeply satisfying.

What’s more, every bite felt like it brought me closer to the increasingly elusive history of my city.

For more of that edible history, Val & Tay’s film — which is funded in part by 4Culture and City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture — showcases five of the oldest Chinese-American establishments in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District including: Tai Tung, the Tsue Chong Noodle Factory (you’ve eaten their fortune cookies), Fortuna Café and the now-closed Mon Hei Bakery and Yick Fung Grocery Store.

“We just started it as a passion project,” says Tay who feels an urgency to document this history before it’s gone. “It’s all going to, at some point, disappear.”

But Harry Chan and Tai Tung have no plans of disappearing, at least not anytime soon.

When I asked him if he thinks the restaurant will make it to 100 he just smiles and answers, “We’ll see.”

I’d bet they do.

“A Taste Of Home” is playing Thursday, February 23rd at 7:30PM at The SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Capitol Hill as part of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. You can find tickets at: seattleaaff.org/2017/films/taste-of-home/

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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