Americans have a way of taking traditional ethnic foods and altering them, sometimes beyond recognition. We call it “Americanizing them,” and no one really knows whether we do it because we want to change the flavors or simply because we want to make it our own. While the Kogi taco trucks in L.A. are getting all the attention, we’d like to point out that a little town in the Midwest holds the honor of being the first to Americanize a great Chinese dish called Cashew Chicken.
For a recipe to try making Springfield Style Cashew Chicken at home, click here.
They call it Springfield Style Cashew Chicken, and it has been popular in Southwest Missouri for 30-some years. It achieved notoriety from a New York Times article, but it’s the local restaurants that keep it coming at both white linen tablecloth and fast food-type diners throughout the city.
Keep in mind, this isn’t the stir fry item you see on coastal menus. No, this particular style of cashew chicken plays off the Midwest reputation for all things battered, fried, and served with gravy. Talk about homestyle food . . . but with Oriental flare and flavor. It is offered in various places in the Midwest – mostly characterized by the use of cafeteria trays, counter ordering, and a facility in need of a good paint job.
Here are a few we recommend:
Leong’s gets to claim first place because it was their family that started the concept years ago. And now, after getting out of the business for many years, the family has opened the new Leong’s Asian Diner to some great reviews. Our experience was that the chicken was fresh and hot, the breading back to the original—not too heavily breaded, as has become the custom—and the sauce had a nice spice. The crab Rangoon has real crab, and the egg rolls are handmade with shrimp and roasted pork.
At Tasia we found a few cashew choices – cashew chicken, cashew tofu or cashew shrimp, plus a kid’s menu offering chicken nuggets. Our order came with 20 healthy pieces, plentiful cashews, and attractive presentation. It included a really flavorful oyster sauce. The chicken itself was tender, and even fried it had a light taste to it, not heavy or over done. It was good enough that we sent our compliments to the chef, and got the chance to talk with Steven Sun, who does double duty as the owner. He told us he is Chinese, although born in Korea, and that the menu is populated with his original recipes. Sun told us that he’s more known for the variety at his restaurant than for a single item like cashew chicken, but “in order to survive in Springfield, you have to have it!” He added, “I like to make things better, fresher, with a more friendly environment.”
When you talk about the history of Chinese restaurants in Springfield, along with Leong’s, Gee’s, Silk Road, Bamboo Inn, Diamond Head, there was Grand Fortuna, with its Mongolian Barbeque. For many years on visits to Springfield it was the place to go, where you gathered up a plateful of meats and vegetables and handed it to the chef to delicately season and cook right in front of your eyes. Sorry, folks, all of them are now closed. But, the same family that owned Grand Fortuna now owns Mr. Yen’s. They offer a “Springfield Style” cashew chicken, but also offer it “Chinese Style,” described as “non-battered chicken and bell peppers sautéed with cashews.” Springfield Style Cashew Chicken is among their most popular dishes, and is always served with all white meat. Ours came with about 20 sizeable chunks, with a light breading. The cashew sauce was almost sweet, and light enough to almost negate the deep fried chicken. Our server told us it was “because the sauce is made with love.”
Even the New York Times told the story of how this restaurant has the original Leong’s recipe. The story is that David Leong’s son had been their chef, and left them the treasured original recipe. In our visit, Springfield Style Cashew Chicken was described as “Golden Fried Chicken topped with oyster sauce, cashews and green onions, served with pork fried rice and an egg roll.” It came with seven pieces of chicken in a nice presentation, and it was good – no one wanting the cashew chicken experience would be disappointed. The oyster sauce had a bolder flavor than others we’d tried by this point. The chicken had a light crust, which was there more to enhance the chicken than to overwhelm it. The pieces were ample sized, so although seven seems few they were easily cut into several bites each. The atmosphere was a bit of a disconnect, simply because Fire & Ice is not a Chinese restaurant. It has the feel of an upscale bar, with flat screens showing the news, sports, and the Food Network, plus lots of chatter and laughter from the patrons – pleasant enough, but no Asian decor.
There were people in Springfield who were upset that the New York Times article missed Chinese Chef, which many called “the city’s best cashew chicken.” When we heard the reason, we were reminded that Springfield has two things people are committed to: cashew chicken and church. The New York Times reporter and Chinese Chef owner Joe Fong missed each other when one Springfield tradition clashed with another. The meeting time would have been when Fong was a church, “and of course I chose my church,” he said, simply. “Even a friend of mine in Thailand saw that story,” he said, “but the reporter didn’t taste mine.” This owner is another who can legitimately claim to have the original recipe. Fong told us that he learned it first hand while working for David Leong in the late ‘60s, when Fong came to Springfield to attend Evangel University.
“It’s the Leong Tea House recipe,” he told us. “David Leong is 89-years-old now and in here every day. I told him, ‘If anyone is going to carry on your legacy, I’m the one.’” He has the story down: The Leong’s started in New Orleans and were invited here in the early 60’s. In 1964 they started Leong’s Tea House. In 1969, Fong went to work for Leong. “He told me the important thing is freshness of the chicken,” said Fong. “The second thing is the taste of the sauce.” Fong even gave us a hint of the trick: you cook it from scratch using the bones of the chicken. “I saw him do it, and cook it over night,” he said of Leong. “It’s how I do it now.”
Our basic order included whole cashews, and plenty of them. The chicken was fork-tender, and the sauce was visibly thicker than any other we tried – with the true gelatin-like texture of good cashew chicken sauce. There were 12 pieces, and a light but obvious breading that was slightly crispy. The rice was also special, with bits of egg and carrot and a good flavor to accompany the chicken. The tradition has not stopped with Fong. He told us that the owner of Canton Inn worked for him for four years, then smiled and said, “Mine is still better.”
We visited this unprepossessing restaurant on a weeknight for dinner, and found the place busy, with patrons sitting at a close-knit group of booths and tables. Orchestral music played in the background and a small, flat screen TV rotated through pictures of the menu items. Sounds classy enough, but the orange cafeteria trays sort of spoiled any ambiance. It didn’t matter – the meat was tender, and the service was excellent. A thick, dark oyster sauce was piping hot and plentiful. The meal included fried rice. Many of the patrons were regulars, and the restaurant had several awards displayed prominently, including a 2006 “Chinese Restaurant News” that names them one of the top 100 Chinese Restaurants in the USA.
“Large cashew chicken, all white.” That’s how you order here, in a family-friendly environment with several locations in the area. The restaurant offers its version of cashew chicken with fried rice, two wontons and an eggroll. It comes with about 12 pieces and rice in a separate bowl, which is nice – particularly if you like your rice without the oyster sauce on it. The chicken had a nice crispy crust and was piping hot.
The co-owner, Linh Duong, was formerly a chef at Hong Kong Inn, which may explain the similarity in restaurant design as well as food. The cashew chicken here had a light sauce, 14 pieces of chicken, lots of green onions and tasty rice, offering good value and good flavor. We talked with the other owner about the business. “I always wanted to open a restaurant in California, but there was no opportunity like there is here,” said Quan Le, who is from Vietnam. Le told us that the first time he heard about cashew chicken he said, “What kind of food is this?’” He added, “I think you have to live here at least five years to get used to this kind of cashew chicken.”
No cafeteria tray here, so it is a little more upscale. This suggestion actually came from a couple of reader recommendations. Stephanie Jones wrote, “I am originally from Springfield, but have lived in Arkansas for quite some time. I never miss a chance to eat at Peking House every time I visit the city.” And Tracy Roberson said, “Peking House on East Sunshine is by far the BEST Chinese food in Springfield. Always good, hot, fast and great service! I’ve gone there since 1990 and have turned many people onto them – with raving reviews and thank you’s!” And, after eating there, we agree it is a good choice. It was a dark sauce, with light breading on the chicken and plenty of cashew pieces. This restaurant certainly wins for speed of order – it was hot, fresh and fast. Our order had 12 good-sized pieces, and the rice had nice bits of egg. The ambiance is nice, with a bamboo garden as you enter.
That’s just a sampling, as there are many more restaurants serving Springfield Style Cashew Chicken. We’ve morphed cultures enough that the ethnicity may be hard to identify, but it’s easy to see that the flavor keeps people coming back.
Portions of this piece were previously used in a series run by The Springfield Business Journal.