Where tradition rules

Oroville’s Tong Fong Low is a downtown gem

TONG FONG LOWDOWN Siblings Sandy and Brian Wong manage the restaurant. She handles the finances, while he runs the kitchen.

TONG FONG LOWDOWN Siblings Sandy and Brian Wong manage the restaurant. She handles the finances, while he runs the kitchen.

Photo By Tom Angel

Where and when: Tong Fong Low is located at 2051 Robinson in downtown Oroville. It is open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Phone: 533-1488.

In the quick glitz of mini-mall eateries and drive-thru gastronomic obscenities, where it’s OK to consume beam-me-up burritos, tradition is a word that is often forgotten when it comes to food.

But I recently rediscovered a great example of traditional food—in, of all places, downtown Oroville.

Tong Fong Low is located on Robinson between Myers and Downer. It’s in an unassuming greenish-blue building and is one of Oroville’s oldest eating establishments. On a recent Sunday, when the rest of downtown was as still as a cemetery, the street and parking lots near the restaurant were full. The pall of silence that dominates most of downtown Oroville on Sundays disappears at the bustling restaurant’s door.

Since 1912, Tong Fong Low has been serving Orovillians some of the best Chinese cuisine found outside of San Francisco. Oroville long has had a substantial Chinese community. Only a dozen blocks away stands one of Butte County’s most famed historical markers, the Chinese Temple. It is amazing to think that Tong Fong Low, in its 92-year-long reign of unimpeded operation, has had only two owners. Now, that’s tradition.

Nothing fancy here. You get the basics. But it’s what Tong Fong Low does with those basics that keeps this end of downtown Oroville lively.

The Wong family arrived in the United States in 1980. They packed with them the local fare of Nanhan, a village in Canton Province, and settled in San Francisco. After working the restaurants there for eight years, the Wongs purchased Tong Fong Low and made the move to Oroville.

Now, siblings Sandy and Brian Wong direct and feed the local community. Sandy handles the business end, while Brian takes care of the food.

The food is one part intensity and one part delicacy. The product of this symbiotic interplay is some of the highest-quality Chinese food I have had since my days as a sailor stationed in the Bay Area.

Their secret?

“It’s generational,” explains Sandy Wong. “Our father taught us the small and the intimate. For example, on how to accrue the freshest flavors from garlic in a meal. You have to place garlic just right in the order of the recipe.”

I’m not quite sure what that means, but I am certain that Tong Fong Low’s Kung Pao Chicken is the best I’ve ever experienced. Intense, delicate, with chunks of white-meat chicken that dissolve on the palate, it is simply a culinary explosion resulting from Tong Fong Low’s mastery of Cantonese cuisine.

“What separates us from other Chinese restaurants,” states Sandy, “is Brian. He trains all our chefs. They start doing only prep work. If they prove themselves, then Brian will spend time with them. I will spend money on them. They will then be given the secrets to our family’s home recipes.”

Brian Wong graduated from UC Davis with a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked for San Jose’s FMC Corporation until his dad begged him to come cook at Tong Fong Low.

And can Brian cook! Other all-star recommendations include the fluffiest and most spectacular samples of Egg Foo Young anywhere. The Spicy Garlic Shrimp also expresses the predominant theme of Tong Fong Low cuisine, merging intensity with delicacy: light, delicate shrimp sautàed sparingly in intense Szechuan spices. The less-spicy Asparagus Shrimp, for those who cannot handle heat, is also an experience in the intense-versus-delicate trade-off.

My only problem, and it is minor, has been with Tong Fong Low’s beef, which is not as superior in quality as the superb chicken, shrimp and pork.

But overall Tong Fong Low’s tradition-based foods make it easily the best Chinese restaurant in Butte County, in my opinion.