By Zack McDonald,
A chance bolt of lightning more than 20 years ago almost put a halt to a family business destined to become a staple of Frankfort dining.
Kenneth Yue, who owns and operates China Wok with his wife, Laura, said the fire caused by lightning striking an outdoor air-conditioning unit led to their business being closed for about a year. It was a difficult time for his family, Yue said, but the decision to reopen was easy.
“It was a struggle,” he said. “We just loved our customers. They’ve been real nice since the beginning. They were real friendly. They just welcomed us with open arms into the community.”
Enduring the 1997 fire, China Wok still operates at the Eastwood Shopping Center after 39 years, making it one of the oldest family-run restaurants in Frankfort. Jennifer Barber, Yue’s daughter, remembers the line of customers waiting to welcome the business back.
“The community was very supportive,” she said.
Barber, who grew up in the restaurant and has since gone on to practice law, said her family’s history in cooking goes back even further than the decades China Wok has been at its current location. Her grandfather and grandmother, on her father’s side, were born and raised in China; they had careers as a newspaperman and baker, respectively, before they emigrated to the States.
Not knowing how to speak English, they relied on their knowledge of cooking Chinese fare in San Francisco to survive and provide for their children. They eventually passed on the family recipes to their children, and Ken and Laura Yue ended up wed in Cincinnati, where they had their own indigenous Chinese restaurant.
Ken Yue said they saw an opportunity in Frankfort and seized on it. Ken was the cook and Laura was the waitress. And they haven’t looked back.
“Both of us had parents in the restaurants,” Yue said. “It goes way back in restaurant work.”
Many dishes at China Wok have preserved the traditional tastes passed down from their parents — shrimp and lobster sauce, chow mein and chop suey. But there are contemporary dishes to suit the tastes of people who have grown up with Americanized Chinese food.
“If somebody who had never got into the old type of Chinese food, they still got a chance to enjoy it,” Yue said.
Whichever dish a customer orders from China Wok, though, it is all made to order. All the wontons and egg rolls are handmade, and everything is either fried or cooked in the wok right after it is ordered.
China Wok remains the only Chinese restaurant in Frankfort to offer a dine-in experience — full bar and all. Along with that, China Wok also has another staple of Frankfort: Patsy Cox, who has been waiting tables for 38 years. She said the environment created by the Yues has kept her there.
“They became like my family,” she said. “I enjoy getting to know the customers and bring them food like they’re members of this extended family. It’s all a family thing.”
While many dishes at China Wok preserve the old tastes of China, the family broke with Chinese tradition with the design inside the restaurant. Most traditional oriental restaurants are decorated in red and gold, partly as a superstition for good luck.
Inside China Wok, on the other hand, soothing aqua cushioning on booths and chairs and light-brown hued wooden tables sit under gold-framed paintings of coy fish.
“When we started, we wanted something different,” Yue said, “where more contemporary types people can come in — a little different than totally red with lanterns and stuff like that. We try to make it a little more welcoming.”
Yue said all of the trials and tribulations, along with the hard work put into business, has been worth it after all of these years. Coming from Chinese immigrant parents, he has been welcomed into a community and maintained a successful local business in order to offer greater opportunities to his children.
“It’s the American Dream,” Barber said. “People immigrate here to better themselves. My parents learned English and worked hard to provide us a better life. And even while they were busy with the business, they gave back to the community that accepted them.”