Modesto, rejoice, the garlic chicken is back.
Lee’s Chinese Kitchen, a restaurant mainstay in the city since it opened in 1973, is back serving up sweet and sour pork, egg foo young and — of course — its beloved garlic chicken. The north McHenry Avenue eatery was forced to close after a fire in June 2017 severely damaged the back of the building and destroyed its kitchen.
The restaurant remained closed for just over two years, but now after an extensive renovation and remodel, it is back with a new contemporary look and all its traditional favorites. Owner Henry Ma’s family took over the restaurant from its original owners in 1977, a few years after its debut. Now he and wife Sally are as associated with the spot as their fan-favorite food.
“People would stop by all the time and say, ‘Oh, Henry, when are you opening? When are you coming back?’ ” Ma said. “Now they’re saying, ‘Henry, I’m so glad to see you again.’ ”
Lee’s reopened July 2, and after the long closure, customers stood in long lines its first week back. The restaurant does brisk business for lunch and dinner, with a large “to go” following as well. As someone who received dozens and dozens of phone calls and emails asking when Lee’s would reopen these last two years, I can confirm people’s love for the spot and its food.
They include customers like father-and-son Vincent and Brian Ruthman, who have already been back to the reopened restaurant multiple times The nostalgia, the prices and the food keep them coming back.
“We’ve been coming here forever,” said Brian Ruthman. “I am 53 and remember coming here as a little kid. It’s just always consistent and reasonably priced.”
The early morning fire that closed the restaurant in 2017 started in a back storage area and spread to the kitchen, destroying much of its equipment and exposing the rear of the building to the elements. Renovations took longer than expected, Ma said, because new issues were uncovered as rebuilding began, including the need to move some gas lines.
The new Lee’s Chinese Kitchen has been renovated both inside and out. The modest dining room still seats about 70, but the interior has been completely updated to lighter and brighter decor. You’ll still spot some of the restaurant’s signature red booths and chairs in the front lobby area.
Sixty-year-old chef Ma still mans the kitchen daily. He has kept the menu identical to before its closure. It includes a long list of appetizers, soups, fried rice, chow mein, sweet and sour, and seafood dishes. The ever-popular combo plates are back, too, all ranging from $8.25 to $8.95 for three items. But, hands down, Ma confirmed that the restaurant’s hot and spicy garlic chicken ($8.95) is its most popular.
Lee’s has reopened with about five employees, a few who had worked for the restaurant before the fire. Ma said it was never an option to close completely.
“I always knew we had to rebuild,” he said.
Elsewhere around the Business Beat:
Newman now has its first Mountain Mike’s Pizza.
The popular pizza chain opened just off Main Street in downtown Newman in late May. The 3,900-square-foot restaurant features a kid’s activity room with arcade games, private party room and big screens throughout the dining room.