Zipping down Avenue H, it’s easy to miss the 34-year-old Hunan Garden Restaurant tucked away in a Rosenberg mall.
Owner Elaine Yang, however, has a recipe for longevity that keeps people coming back for generations to seek the comfort of her flavorful food.
“I have a passion for food and wanted to create something light, healthy and authentic Chinese food,” she said during a break from visiting with a return customer.
“I don’t have customers, I have guests and I feel like this is their home so I care that they have the best, that they are happy and they come back. I am so blessed because I have long-term relationships,” said Yang.
The former nurse opened the business in 1984 with her brothers Peter and Paul, an architect and electrical engineer, at a time when there were few restaurants in Rosenberg. The family from Taiwan loved the country and wanted to be close to the city and thrive. When the economy fell and Highway 59 veered customers away from their front door, Yang remembered the words of her father who said if you make it good, people will come.
So even though, as she says, they are not in a great location, customers drive from two hours away to get their hands on Yang’s Chinese favorites of shrimp egg rolls and her personal creations of lettuce wrapped shrimp, sautéed organic spinach topped with spicy and succulent reddish gold shrimp, ginger-laced homemade dumplings, orange roughy with sugar peas and a light white sauce, tropical golden shrimp over a bed of diced pineapples, and lightly sauced fried chicken wings which were voted the best wings in Fort Bend County.
The restaurant spawns generational loyalty. Cindy Valchar of Needville has been coming for more than 30 years for lunch and family dinner meals. When her 21-year-old granddaughter Peyton Foster came home from college recently for a visit, she told her grandmother they had to eat at the Hunan Garden.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 5 years old. I have so many memories here, I’m reminded so much of my childhood with her mom, my great-grandmom, it looks exactly the same there except there used to be a fish pond. I just love this place and I was craving the shrimp egg rolls,” gushed Foster.
With soft light jazz playing in the background and pleasing decor, it’s easy to have a conversation in the restaurant.
“Some places you go now you see the television on the wall. No, we want you to relax, take your time, enjoy your family and your dinner party,” said Yang, who remembers her customers and their families, their favorite dishes and even where they like to sit.
“They say, how could you have remembered me? I say God give me a good brain. And remembering shows you care,” Yang said.
She also encourages her customers to try something new.
“Everyone wants to order sweet and sour pork. That’s boring. I make recommendations and they are happy,” she said.
Too often, said Yang, there is a misconception that Chinese food is greasy or it will be a buffet. As a nurse, Yang said she likes to serve healthy food that cuts the grease, had no MSG and tantalizes the tongue.
“I try to do as much as I can for them,” she said.
Now if a customer is set on a specific dish, Yang accommodates, but she most enjoys broadening palates. Former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips famously told a local newspaper that the Hunan Garden was his favorite place to eat in all of Houston. A picture of his smiling face is hanging on the wall in her restaurant when you enter.
Longtime customer and friend Cindy Newlin and her husband, former Houston Rocket Mike Newlin, found the restaurant the first week it opened.
“It was love at first bite and we have been regulars ever since,” said Newlin.
She recalled one life-changing night.
“One night when Mike and I went to Hunan Garden, we could tell that Elaine was not quite herself. Beautiful Elaine always welcomes everyone with her smile and warmth – but, she couldn’t completely hide the turmoil in her life from us, her long-time customers and friends,” said Newlin.
After hearing what she was going through in her life – with the deaths of her mom and her brother, becoming a single mom and trying to weather the downturn in the economy,” Newlin said, “I wanted to do something to help. If Elaine closed Hunan Garden, it would be such a major loss to the community – especially to her loyal customers.”
So Newlin revamped the interior with warm colors creating an inviting environment.
“I told Elaine that she had two of the three things needed for a successful restaurant: She had the very best food and she was beloved by her customers. I told her that her restaurant just needed a little face-lift. She couldn’t change the location of her restaurant – but, it didn’t matter. It’s a destination place. People will drive to get the best food,” she said.