THERE IS A TRAIL OF broken woks across the Trans-Pecos, a desolate, wind-swept chain of campsites
from El Paso to Del Rio strewn with buttons, chopsticks, knives, and brush-lettered coins,
indecipherable to Anglo eyes, dropped in yet another round of gambling on a moonless night. There are
strange jars of food, tobacco cans, even small brass tins of opium distributed (this was 90 years ago)
by the barons of the Southern Pacific Railway, ever willing to keep their Oriental laborers contented
after a day of laying a few more feet of tracks and ties across that bleak desert to join Montgomery
Street with Wall Street; ever willing (indeed anxious) to buoy the puzzled mind from
Canton—Fukien—Chekiang—above his closed thoughts in the silent twilight and away from rumination on
the promises that had brought him there.
The Chinese came to Texas. As swiftly and as quickly
as they came, they left when the railroad was done. Perhaps again to California (gold was the reason
they had come), perhaps to Chekiang, Fukien, Canton (seeing that for them there was no gold but only
hard labor in an uncomprehending land). A few stayed here, but only a few; the rest are commemorated
not in the Institute of Texan Cultures but in the scattered artifacts that refuse, for want of water,
to rust away in the ceaseless West Texas wind.
RECENTLY OTHER CHINESE HAVE FOUND their way
back to one of the major cities along that old Southern Pacific roadbed—San Antonio. They have brought
skills that for the first time give Texans a chance to sample Chinese cooking of international
quality, both Cantonese and northern Chinese. The proprietors of two of Texas’ newest Chinese
restaurants are unique, and their restaurants are as different as restaurants can be. We can only hope
that their contributions to Texas will be better received, and their stay longer lasting, than that of
their countrymen who passed through so briefly almost a century ago.
Admirers of mild and tasty Cantonese
dishes will find the King Wah Restaurant, 1512 Bandera, a novel and gratifying experience. The
owners, Mr. and Mrs. Alfredo Leon and Mr. and Mrs. Maximo Leon, operated a “chifa,” or Chinese
restaurant, in Lima, Peru, for ten years before moving to this country in 1972. Despite the Spanish
surnames, all four are of Chinese descent. Following a familiar pattern among expatriated Chinese, the
husbands left Lima’s large Oriental community as youths to return to the mother country for their
education; heritage secured, they came back to take up residence in Peru.
Like San Francisco,
Lima possesses an impressive reputation as a center of Chinese cookery. The nearness of the Pacific
Ocean has led to the proliferation of an imaginative array of seafood dishes, and the Leons have
done a remarkable job of perpetuating this tradition for the benefit of inland San Antonians. The
chefs specialty, Kon Shin Ha Kou, consists of unshelled shrimp sauteed in a slightly spicy red sauce
($4.50); diners can also choose from among Wo Tip Ha (shrimp toast, $3), Sea Food with sizzling rice
($4.50), Fun Kin Chong Lung (chicken stuffed with ham and shrimp in black bean sauce, $3.50), or
abalone in oyster sauce ( $4.50).
The 120-item menu includes several memorable non-seafood
dishes. On a recent visit, our meal began with an intriguing asparagus and chicken soup ($1),
continued with faintly-sweet, delicately-seasoned sliced beef tenderloin accompanied by pineapple
and cherries ($4.50) and a stunning boneless chicken breast lightly breaded and sauteed before being
served in a perfectly-balanced sweet-and-sour lemon sauce ($3) .The piece de resistance was a
crisp, satisfying Peking duck with Roisin sauce which—although it lacked the usual accompaniment of
scallions and failed to separate the crackling outer skin from the succulent inner meat—served as a
reminder of the masterly self-assurance with which the Chinese have transcended the obvious in
catering to the palate.
The accomplishments of the King Wah (the name means “magnificent
capital”) have been made in the face of obstacles that might have prevented less-energetic
restaurateurs from leaving their familiar, hectic chifa in downtown Lima. After a preliminary
inspection of their first choice for a new home, New York City, the patrician Leons firmly concluded
that the congestion, crime, high rents, and general chaos of that declining megapolis were not for
them. They took the advice of a friend and headed for the unknown land of Texas with the intrepid
determination of pioneers venturing into uncharted territory. (“None of our friends in Lima had ever
heard of San Antonio,” Mrs. Alfredo Leon said later. “Corpus Christi, yes—but San Antonio, never. We
finally just had to ten them ‘It’s near the border of Mexico.’”)
The Leons, seeing the Alamo
city and pronouncing it good, began decorating their restaurant in mid-1972 and summoned two chefs
from Lima, each of whom are said by the owners to have 35-years’ experience. Upon their arrival, the
language situation at the King Wah reached absurdity. All four Leons speak Spanish; the wives speak
English as well (the result of a crash course before leaving South America). The Leons and their chefs
all speak Chinese, of course: but two different dialects, Cantonese and Mandarin, make communication
difficult. Since the chefs also know a little Spanish, the lingua franca of this Chinese
restaurant is a most peculiar Spanish. An English-language menu and bilingual chicano waitresses
round out the dizzying League of Nations atmosphere.
The King Wah opened on September 17, by
chance in the midst of a local Chinese convention. The delegates provided a steady stream of
chattering, contented customers for the first three days and the Leons were off to an auspicious start.
At the beginning, Mrs. Leon recalled, cautious San Antonions surveyed the elaborate
menu with a quizzical stare and ordered chow mein and chop suey. Egg rolls were considered adventurous.
Customers wondered aloud at the absence of bread, crackers, and butter. In a tribute
to the quality of their own food and the chefs’ skills, the Leons held on and refused to debase their
dishes in the face of this incomprehension. For once the strategy worked. The King Wah now does a
thriving business, and on weekend evenings there is often a line of regular customers waiting for a
table—crackers and butter the furthest thing from their minds.
The decor at the King Wah is
standard Chinese-restaurant style, more tasteful than most. Unobtrusive Chinese lanterns lend an
Oriental atmosphere. Table-settings and service are exemplary. A dish is prepared