While researching my book, Lost Restaurants of Tulsa, I met and interviewed a lot of people. During that process, I learned a lot about various family histories tied to eateries of the city’s past. One of my favorite stories is that of the Eng Family. Their journey weaves in and around generations of family, friends, and communities…but the centerpiece has always been food.
Although the Tulsa part of their story begins in 1930 with the opening of the Mandarin Cafe (the city’s first Chinese restaurant) it actually starts quite a bit earlier. The Engs emigrated from China to the Honolulu Territory of Hawaii around 1880. Even then, the family was known for their cooking skills and worked as chefs and caterers. Albert Eng was born in 1893.
In 1899, the plague came to town. Attempts to control the outbreak escalated to burning houses of the dead; in 1900, one of those fires got out of control and the entire Chinatown district of Honolulu burned down. The Eng Family recovered, though, and opened a new restaurant a few years later on the corner of Hotel and Mounakea Streets, across from the famous Wo Fat building.
In June of 1915, Albert (21 years old) left the island and traveled to San Francisco. He spent a whole month exploring the World’s Fair and worked at a Chinese fruit orchard east of town. During his time there, family in St. Louis wrote and asked him to join them as they opened the Grand Inn on Grande Avenue, about half-a-mile from the Mississippi River. In late 1915, Albert did just that. He stayed there until the next year, when more of his family wrote and asked for his help running the Golden Pheasant Inn in Chicago. Albert moved once again.
The Golden Pheasant Inn was on the corner of Clark and Madison Streets. It had a large dance floor; a ten-piece orchestra played three times a day. It was a prosperous time in a rapidly-growing city. When the US entered World War I in 1917, Albert moved back to Hawaii and enlisted in the National Guard. It was then that he met Violet Tseu, who he later married.
During this time, the Golden Pheasant Inn in Chicago lost its lease. Several partners from the restaurant (Albert’s brothers Yuen, Pui, and Phillip Eng along with Joe King) moved to Okmulgee, Oklahoma in 1919 to serve oil field workers. They purchased the Busy Bee Restaurant at 219 E 6th Street and renamed it the Golden Pheasant Cafe. It was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; in fact, business was so strong that the Engs sent for the rest of their family in Honolulu.
Pui Eng had a huge house built on Rogers Avenue for the entire family. It had seven bedrooms, a sun porch and large living room, a dining room table big enough to seat 22, even a chicken coop. Under that roof lived Albert and his wife Violet, Pui and his wife Margaret, Phillip and his wife Elizabeth, Buck Eng, Joe King, and others. Business was good there until the oil wells went dry in 1929. The Great Depression hit later that year, closing the doors of the Golden Pheasant for good.
When the restaurant in Okmulgee closed, the family split up. Some of the Engs moved to the Houston, TX area. Albert and his family moved to Muskogee and operated the Yangtze Restaurant for a few years. In 1939, they moved to Bartlesville and ran a number of restaurants (notably Eng’s Cafe) and enjoyed success. Albert retired in 1962 but lived to the ripe old age of 106. He passed away in 1999.
Back in 1930, some of the partners from the Golden Pheasant moved to Tulsa. Brothers Pui and Phillip Eng, along with their wives Margaret and Elizabeth, Buck Eng, Margaret’s brother Loy Pang, and Joe King settled downtown and opened The Mandarin Cafe at 118 E 3rd Street, across from the bustling Hotel Tulsa. Here, too, the restaurant was open all day, every day and enjoyed strong business. Those early years also had more than its fair share of family tragedy. Pui Eng died in 1933; his brother Phillip died five years later.
Their wives, Margaret and Elizabeth respectively, took over the front-of-house restaurant operations while Joe King and Loy Pang helped run the two-burner wok in the back. The women worked rotating 12 hour shifts and became fixtures of the downtown dining scene. Margaret’s daughter Peggy and Elizabeth’s boys (Clarence, Lawrence, and Donald) helped out as they could since the entire family lived above the restaurant. Margaret later married Joe King. Peggy met Jimmy Char on a trip to Honolulu and fell in love.
In 1963, the Mandarin Cafe building was sold to the National Bank of Tulsa for a new drive-up facility. The restaurant closed and Elizabeth Eng retired.
Peggy and Jimmy Char, along with Joe and Margaret King and other family members, opted to keep the family tradition going. The next year, they opened the Pagoda near 51st and Peoria. It quickly became a Tulsa favorite and stayed in the family until 1979 when it was sold to Ben and Virginia Torres.
In 1969, Joe King’s family (the Jow’s) opened Ming Palace at 21st and Yale. In 1979, the next generation of the Jow family opened The Golden Palace, just down the street from The Pagoda. Over the years, members of the Jow family became known for their other restaurants in Tulsa (such as Ming’s Noodle Bar) and other eateries in Houston, TX.
After forty years, nearly to the day, The Golden Palace closed in mid-2019. The tradition continues, however: the Jow family is currently working on opening a new restaurant near 6th and Boston, just a few blocks away from where Joe King helped establish the city’s original Chinese restaurant.
It’s been an amazing journey for me, personally. I’ve gotten to know Jean Eng (wife of the late Don Eng) and her daughters. I’ve met the Jow brothers and had multiple conversations with various family members across the country. In short, it’s been a blessing.