Cashew Chicken in Springfield, MO

17 Mar


Our friend John T. Edge recently wrote this piece:  

STANDING in the parking lot of Mr. Yen’s, a 560-seat palace of Chinese cooking owned by a family friend, David Leong scanned the red clay pagoda roof and rose-colored walls and staked a claim that few here in the Ozarks would dispute.

“All this came from my cashew chicken,” said Mr. Leong, the 88-year-old patriarch of the Chinese food industry here. “All these restaurants. This wealth. From my family.”

Cashew chicken, in the form first cooked by Mr. Leong nearly a half-century ago, is not the stir-fry served by many Chinese-American restaurants. Around Springfield, cashew chicken — deep-fried chicken chunks in a brown slurry of soy sauce, oyster sauce and stock, scattered with green onions and halved cashews — is the culinary common denominator. It’s a weeknight dinner, bought from a drive-through. It’s a weekday plate lunch, accompanied by fried rice and an egg roll.

More than 70 Chinese restaurants in this city of 157,000 serve cashew chicken, from Lucy’s Chinese Food, a three-location chain owned by brothers John and Tom Gregoroski, to the Canton Inn, a converted Dunkin’ Donuts where Chiwa and Foon Wong keep a pot of chicken stock simmering on the stove and the cashew chicken special costs $3.75.

In St. Louis and Kansas City, cashew chicken is served “Springfield style,” heralded with provincial categorization like Sichuan or Cantonese. In Springfield, however, cashew chicken accepts no categorization.

It’s a standard at the Vietnamese restaurant Little Saigon. (The menu includes a section of “breaded chicken” dishes.) Golden Korean, a neighboring strip-mall purveyor of bulgogi and kimchi, sells crab Rangoon purses by the half-dozen and cashew sauce by the pint.

Cashew chicken transcends nationality. At Ziggie’s, a diner owned and operated by the Zendelis, a family of Albanian origin, it’s a white-board special, served in a skillet-shaped ceramic crock with a roster of side dishes that includes cottage cheese and hash browns.

“It’s not necessarily Chinese,” said Vicki Hilton, a local zoning inspector on lunch break at Ziggie’s. “Our kids eat cashew chicken in their school cafeteria.” (A number of schools rely on the Hopsing brand of cashew chicken sauce mix, a powdered product made in Springfield, colored with turmeric and goosed with MSG.)

The Heritage Cafeteria, a strip-mall dowager that opened in 1960, stocks chicken planks, yellow rice, roasted cashews and a vat of brown gravy alongside haunches of roast beef and tubs of gelatin salad. “Our sauce is made from chicken base, soy sauce and Clear Jel,” a thickening agent, said Kulwant Hundal, a native of Punjab, India, who has worked the line for 10 years. “I love it.”

At Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, the flagship location in a Springfield-based national chain, Marcel Bonetti is the company’s executive chef. “I brought my recipes to this country,” said Mr. Bonetti, a native of Aix-en-Provence, France. “But all I heard was cashew, cashew, cashew. So I made my own version. I added bourbon.”

Some Chinese restaurateurs with fine-dining aspirations try to resist the pull of cashew chicken. They fail.

“We’ve got dim sum on the weekend,” said John Burke, 36, proprietor of Mr. Yen’s. “And spicy pigs’ ears on the menu. But it doesn’t matter — 40 percent of our business is cashew chicken.”

“It’s not the Chinese cashew chicken you think you know,” said Mr. Burke, whose family immigrated from Taiwan in 1976. “It’s fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. It’s Missouri. Only we sub fried rice for potatoes.”

“When I took over, I wanted to serve something other than chicken nuggets in brown gravy,” Mr. Burke continued. “My father said: ‘Are you stupid, son? Are you that stupid? You can’t cook Chinese in Springfield without cooking cashew chicken.’ ”

“I fought it at first,” he said. “Now I eat cashew chicken three or four days a week.”

Kelly Knauer, a native, was eating an order of the same at Fire and Ice, a swank open-kitchen restaurant that once featured a pizza with fried chicken, cashews and mozzarella. “Cashew chicken is a kind of inside joke in Springfield,” he said. “But it’s also our daily bread, our defining food. And it starts with David Leong.”

Unlike many dishes of American pop provenance, Springfield cashew chicken comes with a well-curated narrative. Residents here recognize the primacy of Mr. Leong. They embrace the Leong story as a Springfield story.

Mr. Leong immigrated to the United States in 1940 from Guangdong, China. He became a naturalized citizen, then served his adopted country during World War II. (During the Normandy invasion, he was in the fourth wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach.) After the war, he bounced from restaurant to restaurant, from Philadelphia to New Orleans to Pensacola, Fla.

At Pirate’s Cove, a Pensacola restaurant where he honed a reputation for broiled scallops and flounder braised in sweet and sour sauce, Mr. Leong met a Springfield neurosurgeon, John L. K. Tsang, who was also a native of China. In 1955, Dr. Tsang lured David Leong and his brother, Gee Leong, to Springfield to open the region’s first Chinese restaurant, Lotus Garden.

It didn’t last. A year later the brothers were cooking at the Grove, a supper club famous for T-bones and highballs. They dished up sweet and sour pork and moo goo gai pan. And, inspired by similar Chinese dishes, David Leong experimented with the dish that would become cashew chicken.

“When I moved here in the 1950s, people kept telling me about fried chicken,” Mr. Leong said. “I did what they wanted. I gave them fried chicken with Chinese oyster sauce and cashews.”

After six years at the Grove, the brothers departed. “Bill Grove didn’t want to pay me to cook,” David Leong said of the owner. “He thought anyone could do what I did. He was wrong. Wasn’t long before he was begging me to come back. I had my own place by then.”

That new place, Leong’s Tea House, set on the suburban fringe of town in what had recently been a cornfield, didn’t come easily. Loans were tough to secure. And some locals suspected the motives of Asian immigrants. “This was not long after the war,” David Leong said. “They thought all Asians were Japanese kamikazes.”

In November 1963, less than a week before the new restaurant was set to open, someone tossed 10 sticks of dynamite at the base of the low-slung building and stole the lion statues that flanked the front door. The crime made the local newspaper. But, as was the case with many incidents of bigotry-born violence in the 1960s, no convictions followed. The Leongs bounced back, repairing the damage quickly and opening the 350-seat white-tablecloth restaurant within a couple of weeks.

Inspired by the economy of the dish and the success of the teahouse, a number of cashew-chicken-centric restaurants followed the Leongs’ lead. (Fewer copied their egg rolls. According to David Leong, the secret ingredient was peanut butter.)

In 1972, when the brothers parted ways, Gee Leong opened Gee’s East Wind, on the same street, on the opposite end of town. And Cheong Leong, David’s oldest son, opened and closed a number of restaurants named House of Cheong, some of which were housed in former Whataburger franchises.

Throughout the 1970s, other Asian families immigrated to Springfield. First came other Chinese, then a large influx of Vietnamese. Many opened Chinese restaurants. By the 1970s, the Leong family dish had become such a part of the Springfield culinary ethic that the curriculum at Graff Vocational Technical Center included instruction in the cooking and serving of hillbilly steak sandwiches, chocolate cream pies and, yes, cashew chicken.

At the moment, no Leong family member runs a Springfield kitchen. In 1997, after the death of his wife, Wong Shau Ngor, David Leong closed Leong’s Tea House. In July 2000, his brother Gee Leong closed Gee’s East Wind. (Soon after, he died.) Cheong Leong moved to Las Vegas.

Wing Yee Leong, 52, another of David’s sons, who was manning the fry station at Leong’s Tea House when the family restaurant closed, now works as a journeyman chef. Over the last decade he has moved from Cartoon’s Oyster Bar to Mikayla’s at the Millwood Golf and Racquet Club to Fire and Ice, where he fried chicken and blanched cashews until last December. Each of those restaurants has adopted cashew chicken as its own.

More recently, Wing Yee Leong was a consulting chef at Pan Asia, a downtown Springfield restaurant owned by Dara Thach, a Cambodian immigrant. The restaurant closed recently, but before it did, Mr. Thach took pride in the dynamite sauce, a mix of mayonnaise and chili purée, that he served with sushi rolls and the cashew chicken recipe he adapted from the Leong tradition.

Occasionally the younger Leong joins his father for an early coffee at Canton Inn. One recent morning, as David Leong read a Cantonese language newspaper, Wing Yee Leong and Foon Wong reminisced about the Cashew Craze fund-raiser that used to take place as a benefit for the Developmental Center of the Ozarks.

“One year the Rasta Grill did a jerk cashew oyster sauce,” recalled Wing Yee Leong, as he worked a pair of chopsticks, pulling noodles from a bowl of soup. “I’ve tried some different stuff myself. Cashew chicken on a stick, fried in cashew flour, with an oyster dipping sauce. Cashew chicken is just like a hamburger. Everybody fixes it different.”


1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast (per person)
2 eggs per pound of chicken
1/4 cup milk per egg
salt & pepper
peanut oil for frying

2 chicken bouillon cubes per cup of water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons oyster sauce

chopped green onions
cashew halves
hot rice for serving

Heat water to boiling and dissolve bouillon cubes. Stir 1/4 cup of broth into cornstarch to make a smooth slurry. Stir cornstarch slurry into broth with sugar and oyster sauce. Set aside and let sauce thicken as chicken cooks.

Heat oil to 350-400° in deep pan or fryer. Cut chicken into small pieces, dredge and let stand in flour for 15 minutes. Mix together egg, milk, and salt & pepper. Remove chicken from flour and let stand in egg mixture for 10 minutes. Roll chicken pieces in flour and deep-fry, in batches if need be, until golden. Drain well on paper towels and keep warm in covered pan in 200° oven.

Serve chicken over hot rice, topped with sauce, cashews, and chopped green onions. Pass soy sauce at table.

P.S. Is cashew chicken good for you? Well, all I can tell you is that my brother says the last time he ran into used-to-be-skinny-and-shy pal Ling, here was “this big, muscular extrovert with a hot girlfriend.” That’s what Springfield Cashew Chicken does for a person (especially, a Leong). Haw!

2 Responses to “Cashew Chicken in Springfield, MO”

  1. jan November 17, 2009 at 1:21 am #

    Somehow while searching for a recipe for What A Burger Hillbilly Steak sandwiches…your article came up…Do you have any way of knowing how to get ahold of that recipe??? I grew up on those and would love to have one again! The What A Burgers were in Springfield MO

    • dixiedining November 17, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

      Not sure, Jan — will look into it!

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