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(Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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The bar stools and dining chairs' sheer emulates rose gold, providing even more gleaming, bright surface within the restaurant. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Both front window spaces will be standing-room only, with high-top tables and a long standing bar. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Beauty & Grace, a restaurant within a restaurant, will offer a sushi menu on weekends along with beer and wine dinners. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Beauty & Grace's second-floor dining space will accommodate diners, a sushi chef, a bar and also a DJ. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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The view from Beauty & Grace, which overlooks the floor of Wong Gonzalez (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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A row of booth seating lines one wall of the restaurant. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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The restaurant's sign as it arrives. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers from entering the United States. They came in search of opportunity, whether it was by way of the Gold Rush or the country's newly formed railroads. Once excluded, many settled at the U.S.-Mexico border and took up occupations there, one being restaurant ownership.
On June 16, 2016, Eat Restaurant Partners — Ren Mefford, Chris Tsui and Chris Staples — will open their seventh restaurant, Wong Gonzalez, housed in the 412 E. Grace St. building erected in 1925. The concept is, as one might infer from the name, Mexican-Chinese fusion. While the two events aren’t directly related, there are 130 years of history behind the cuisine that EAT is planning to serve in its new space complete with a patio, room to seat 80-plus, a mezzanine rumored for special use such as DJ nights, and Beauty & Grace: a restaurant within a restaurant.
We asked Staples, manager of EAT Restaurant Partners, to explain how the concept came about, what we can expect from Wong Gonzalez, what's coming next and, of course, whether there will be sushi burritos.
Richmond magazine: Tell me about the concept? How did it come to fruition for you?
Staples: Honestly, it was a truly organic process. While I was the general manager of Wild Ginger in 2010, Chef Ken [Liew, from Singapore] had a kitchen staff composed of primarily Latin and Mexican line cooks. Each of them had to be trained on both the technical side of cooking Asian food with woks, which is very difficult, and the subtle skill of cooking with Asian spices, proteins and sauces. After they mastered these techniques they started making “family meal” dishes for the staff using spices and ingredients from their own background. They would make chorizo fried rice, huevos rancheros with chasu pork, and an assortment of wok stir-fries with all sorts of cool Chinese and Mexican flavors thrown in there, a true blending of cultures. To Chris Tsui and myself, and anyone lucky enough to try these staff meals, these dishes were delicious, fun and unique. We wondered at the time if people would enjoy these dishes. We weren’t thinking of the historical relevance and pervasive existence of Mexicali and Peru. This was just something that “happened.”
When [Tsui] and Ren Menford discovered this amazing building on Grace with so much history and character, they knew right away they wanted to do something different not only for RVA but also for the area. Fine dining at Juleps, award-winning comfort food at Pasture and of course Rappahannock a few doors down left an opening for what we thought could be a hip, fun fast-casual concept. Something with lots of energy, alluring and a lower price point to be as dynamic as possible on this street with such esteemed company. The Latin-Asian fusion idea just seemed to “fit.”
RM: I know there has been a little discussion about the name. Who came up with it and where did it come from?
Well, this is a tough question to answer because we know initially it may cause some people to raise their eyebrows. The bottom line is that we wanted the name to reflect the concept on both a culturally and culinarily. Our Chef is from Malaysia, our owner is from Taiwan and the sous chef, Luis [Cruz], is from Mexico. It is in no way poking fun or being disrespectful to the Chinese or Latino cultures. We wanted the name to be fun and lighthearted; “Wong,” a Chinese surname, and “Gonzalez,” a Latin last name, seemed to be the best way to paint a picture in people’s minds of what we are all about. The best of both worlds brought together. A rousing and exciting blending of Asian and Latin cuisines. Wong Gonzalez won’t be quite like any place you have been before.
RM: Tell me about the chef and what the cuisine will look like? Will there be sushi burritos?
Chef Ken is the mastermind behind the dishes of Wild Ginger, Foo Dog and now Wong Gonzalez. He was born and raised in Malaysia and learned to cook in the Hawker stalls of Singapore at a very young age. He worked tirelessly for decades overseas before coming to the U.S. and joining forces with Chris Tsui.
Singapore is a melting pot for many Asian cultures and you can see that reflected in his work. Our sous Chef, Luis, was a cook in Mexico for many years. Together they have developed a menu [with] dishes that are vibrant and dynamic in appearance and flavor from a100% scratch kitchen using only fresh ingredients
Sushi burritos? The short answer is yes. Not right out of the gate but I assure you, you will see them within the Wong Gonzalez building before long.
RM: What was your inspiration behind the decor and building build-out?
Chris' process is really neat. Honestly, I have never seen anything like it. It is amazing how he can walk into an empty — in this case nearly a 100 year old building — and almost immediately have a vision. This is bolder and more audacious than anything we have done before. Some really really cool talk pieces on the walls that are sure to create a buzz, even in the restrooms. Don’t get me wrong, though; Wong Gonzalez will not be pretentious or gaudy. We are accessible, laid back. I’d like to think we offer an environment that takes people away; something that they would expect from a big city like Chicago or San Francisco.
RM: What can a diner expect at Wong Gonzalez?
The huge bar will be the heartbeat of the main dining area. We will have 24 beers on tap, cold-pressed coffee on tap, premium sake on tap. Stellar happy hour to the likes of Fat Dragon and Boulevard Burger and Brew's incredible deals. In fact the lower price points across the board should make for incredible evening on the town whether on a date, with the girls or a guy’s night out without denting the wallet.
RM: Were you familiar with the historical Mexi-Chinese cuisine before this concept came about?
[When] we started to develop Wong Gonzalez, we learned more on how the Chinese immigrants came to Central American and the unique cuisine that came out of the joining of the two cultures. We did our research and we educated ourselves and our staff on this rich history and we hope to honor this bourgeoning tradition.
RM: What's next for EAT?
Short Pump is the next venture for us. First quarter of 2017, for sure. The concept should look something like if STK in Las Vegas and Nabu Sushi in Manhattan had a baby.
Wong Gonzalez is set to open June 16 at 412 E. Grace St. serving dinner only for the first few weeks, then adding lunch service and possibly brunch.