95-year-old Chinese restaurant is almost all that's left of this Chinatown (2023)

At dusk, the neon light above the front door flickers to life. A sign tucked in the corner of the plate glass window is flipped to “open.” Most days there’s no line, but on Thursdays through Saturdays especially, a small and orderly queue forms outside the door.

If you know a thing or two, you’ll ignore the menu at the counter and go straight for the restaurant’s specialty for almost a century: chop suey.

The main dining area’s seating, a handful of four-tops, is usually spoken for. But if you get there early enough, you might have a chance to sink into one of the restaurant’s two coveted red vinyl booths near the kitchen’s entrance and enjoy a cup of tea.

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You’re in no hurry because you’ve found yourself in one of the oldest and most revered, if not best-kept-secret, Chinese restaurants in the U.S. — and you’ve likely come a long way to be here.

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The surroundings feel historical and at once bright and contemporary; the location — improbable as it is fitting. The place is Mee Heng Low Noodle House. The city: San Luis Obispo.

‘We’re still in it’

While the emergence of the cooking and selling of food in San Luis Obispo’s Chinatown district just north of downtown dates back to 1886, Mee Heng Low, at 815 Palm St., officially opened its doors almost exactly 95 years ago: Dec. 3, 1927, by a restaurateur named Gin Jack, who took over the space previously known as Hong Kong Restaurant and soon made it his own.

“The name Mee Hing is Chinese for ‘sanitary,’” an announcement in the San Luis Obispo Tribune on the restaurant’s opening day read. “And the cafe will live up to its name, according to the proprietor.”

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There are other Chinese restaurants in the state with a similarly long lineage. Sam Wo, at 713 Clay St. in San Francisco, is said to be the oldest in California and claims to have first fired its stovetop in Chinatown around 1907. That restaurant, however, closed for good in 2012, only to reopen in 2015 under new ownership. In Oroville, Tong Fong Low claims it first opened its doors in 1912.

Though it’s difficult to say with various owner changes, starts and stops which Chinese restaurant is the oldest in the state, Mee Heng Low is in a category all its own as likely the oldest, continuously operated Chinese restaurant in Central California, a curiosity that current chef-owner Russell Kwong says he doesn’t often think about.

Still, when he has a moment to pause, the lineage is something he doesn’t take lightly.

“You know, it’s a strange thing that it’s here — that we’re still here,” Kwong told SFGATE on a quick break before a recent weeknight dinner service. “You come in, you do the work, you hope to make people happy, to be able to pay bills on time. Thinking about a place’s history is something one does after the fact.

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“To me, we’re still in it. It’s still a thing where the rewards still far outweigh the struggle.”

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Kwong, 30, took over the restaurant’s day-to-day operations from his father, Paul, in late 2019. He represents the third Chinese American family to own and operate the restaurant in its lifespan.

The last holdouts

SLO’s Chinatown lies on the periphery of downtown at the corner of Palm and Chorro streets, about a block up from Mission San Luis Obispoand two blocks away from the bustling main drag of Higuera Street, a heavily trafficked (car and foot) corridor that shuts down once a week completely for the city’s fabled farmers market.

The restaurants and bars on the five-block heart of Higuera currently feature pandemic-era parklets for dining that extend over the sidewalk and into the street. Unlike Central Coast neighbor Santa Barbara, SLO has seen the notion of closing the main commercial zone of Higuera permanently to car traffic mired in debate on local op-ed pages.

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And while SLO’s Chinatown is just off the main thoroughfare enough to maintain at least two of its historical storefronts —Mee Heng Low and the original Ah Louis Store, the eponymous mercantile owned by Chinatown’s patriarch — the rest of the district has since been paved over.

Notably, on the north side of the street, there’s a four-story parking garage that takes up almost the entirety of the block. It overshadows the Ah Louis Store as the lone holdout.

On the south side, across from Ah Louis, is a string of three small connected buildings: the Palm Theatre, a three-screen art house cinema, Mee Heng Low and a two-story mixed-use building. The first floor of the mixed-use building is retail space, with residential spaces and offices upstairs on the corner facing out to Chorro — the north end of the Mission’s grounds across the crosswalk.

The rest of the block is largely occupied by the recently completed Hotel San Luis Obispo, a contemporary, boxy thing that comes with a rooftop bar and 10,000 square feet of meeting and conference space. The hotel is accurately described on its homepage as a “modern urban resort that embodies the essence of SLO.”

A multifamily dynasty

Mee Heng Low came to prominence under the ownership of Gow Gin, who bought the business from cousin Gin Jack on Oct. 13, 1945, and demolished and remodeled much of the original two-story wood-slat building in 1957. Gin brought the space into the mid-20th century, expanding both the kitchen and upstairs dining area into what the restaurant is today.

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“We invite everyone to come see the new arrangements,” he told the Tribune in December 1957, announcing the emergence of the refurbished space, “especially our old customers who will [find] service is even better and faster because of the extra room and modern facilities.”

Gin and his descendants ran the restaurant until 1988, when it was sold to the Hyun family, who owned it for 20 years before selling it in 2009 to Paul Kwong, who to that point was chef-owner of a popular downtown bistro called Rhythm Cafe. The elder Kwong wanted to take the menu back to the restaurant’s origins and opened with only four items: a soup and three noodle dishes.

The menu remains nearly identical today.

“We keep it simple. We try to stick to what works, what we know best and what’s of the most import to the history of the space, the restaurant,” Russell Kwong, Paul’s son, said. “It’s not a difficult formula, but consistency and affordability can be the toughest thing to maintain.”

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Russell Kwong spent his high school years working in the kitchen just after the family took it over. After graduation, he moved out of the area, first to Santa Cruz, then up to Portland, Oregon, where he worked for James Beard Award-winning chef Vitaly Paley at Imperial in Hotel Lucia. But Kwong returned to SLO in 2019 to lend a hand in his father’s kitchen and, shortly after the pandemic hit, assumed the day-to-day operations.

“He was getting older, and obviously, restaurant workers were on the front lines, the most at risk, and we didn’t want that for him, so I took over,” Kwong said. “We’ve been here ever since. We’re a place that gets discovered, forgotten, rediscovered — over and over.”

‘A mall with palm trees’

Nine years ago, San Luis Obispohistorian James Papp was having a tough time adjusting to his move to the small Central Coast college town of 47,000 from his previous confines of Manhattan.

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Papp recalls being less than impressed with the once thriving and functional downtown that had somehow morphed from “the hardware store and the appliance shop” into all “boutiques and restaurants.”

What he saw was something he described as white monoculture: chalkboard menus, curlicue fonts, the influencer-ready exposed brick walls — a place that could just have easily placed visitors in another quickly gentrifying commercial district in Austin, Charlotte, Nashville, Denver or San Diego. These fly-to weekend destinations have over the past few decades morphed into mere brunch stops, embracing a kind of sameness that was previously the domain of airport terminal food courts and conference hotels.

Papp wasn’t alone. The tepid nature of most of downtown SLO didn’t miss the gaze of the New York Times when in May 2015 it parachuted in for its 36 Hours segment, in which a region’s best is highlighted for would-be weekenders.

The New York Times seemed to gladly venture everywhere in SLO County but downtown, and when it came time to do so, it brushed it off with a single dismissive line like post-flight lint. “Downtown SLO can at times feel a bit like a mall with palm trees,” the review read. “Smaller Paso Robles has fewer offerings, but more character.”

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Papp still laughs today about the slight on his adopted hometown. “Well first off, there’s no palm trees in downtown SLO,” he told SFGATE, “but also, they’re right — on first glance, there’s nothing to see here.

“Then you stay for a minute, and there’s a whole lot.”

‘There’s one place that did it best’

For the past half-decade, Papp has been working with the city of San Luis Obispo’s Cultural Heritage Committee as its architectural historian. While SLO may be late to the game in its efforts to recognize and preserve its now mostly forgotten — or more likely, long-demolished — districts, Papp said he feels the committee’s efforts to shine a light or, in some cases, keep the light on what’s left here are critical to a place that’s both rich in cultural history and in grave danger of losing it all.

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The job, he said, is making sure the remnants of a once-robust Chinatown are protected.

“You have to understand, San Luis Obispo was a much more diverse place in the 19th century than it is now,” Papp said. “And that starts in Chinatown and with Mee Heng Low. It became a staple of not just the Chinese community but with the European settlers. Chop suey had a vogue to it, a real moment, in the early 20th century. There were chop suey parties. It was highly sought after, a delicacy.

“And there’s one place that did it best, right here.”

My portion of chop suey was generous but not heaping nor greasy. The prospect is a simple one, seasonal vegetables over flat noodles cooked together with Mee Heng Low’s house sauce, served with a sprig of cilantro and shaved carrot garnish. I’d put Kwong’s consistent ability to surprise with simple ingredients against any noodles in the bookend metros. The portion size, the heat, the careful prep and the adherence to a recipe that dates back a century yet still feels new are all there.

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“People come from SF or LA and say ours holds its own or is better,” Kwong said. “I mean, I’ve gone to both and seen what they have, extensively, and I’m like, ‘Really?’ At the same time, we understand the food we prepare and the limits for it. ... In that context, even with the prices of food continuing to go up, we are able to stay afloat and provide an affordable and satisfying meal.”

‘I understand progress, but it also comes at a cost’

It was the construction of the neighboring hotel that almost forced Mee Heng Low to close its doors for good, Kwong told SFGATE. “We’ve had a lot of close calls even since 2010,” he said, naming construction along with the recession, COVID-19 and now the housing crisis and worker and supply chain shortages as the lowlights.

“It’s us and the Ah Louis Store, and now, that’s pretty much what’s left,” he explained “It’s fine. I understand progress, but it also comes at a cost.”

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Historian Papp said putting a stop to the lament and lack of a Plan B for merchants like Kwong is part of the mission of the city’s heritage committee. “Unfortunately for businesses like this, a place like SLO hasn’t come up with a safety net to save them from the bougie miasma of corporate infrastructure,” he said. “But there are signs of hope: We weren’t this way 100 years ago, and we won’t be this little white enclave forever.”

Kwong is less concerned about legacy than about the here and now, he said. The delicate balance between running a business, bringing in new customers, pleasing the longtime faithful and staying true to the restaurant’s roots is one he manages with a little help from his friends.

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“Cody Gin and I grew up together. I was recently the best man at his wedding,” he says of one his best friends, who is also a descendant of Gow Gin. “We’re a small community here, but we stick together. We have to. We don’t have a choice.”

There also is a matter of perception within the community. Sometimes, Kwong said, big parties of Chinese tourists stop by the restaurant.

Some tell him they’re the best noodles they’ve had, anywhere. Others are disappointed when Mee Heng Low can’t accommodate big groups. “We had to turn away a party of 22 recently here for lunch on a stopover,” he said. “You know, they look at the place, they look at the plaque across the street and they say, ‘This is your Chinatown? And you’re it?’ And sometimes I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, I really am. But do you want to check my ID?’ They’re incredulous — but I get it.”

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As the evening dinner crowd starts to roll in from the late matinee at the Palm and the phone starts to ring for to-go orders, Kwong and his small team finish prep work and get ready to man their stations.

“The downtown, what’s here now, it’s increasingly more corporate, and we feel that,” he concludes. “I mean, there’s progress, and there’s not a lot you can do. Everyone wants to look back, and I’m the same way, but you know just certain businesses aren’t viable after a while.

“But we’re here now. People are noticing us again. And for that, I mean, how can I not be grateful?”

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