For 34 years, a little Chinese restaurant has sat nestled in a nook off Sam Houston Avenue, family-owned and operated since the very beginning. The doors of China House are open five days a week to Huntsville residents, passersby, and college students. On the outskirts of campus and within walking distance, the restaurant offers a convenient and fresh lunch spot for SHSU students and staff. Cathy and Gene moved from Sugar Land and decided to start their own Chinese restaurant in Huntsville when they saw the demand for one in the Piney Woods area at the time. China House was one of the first Chinese restaurants in Huntsville—here long before the town of Huntsville gained momentum in adding new stores, multiple financial institutions, fast food chains, and real estate.
The American dream became a reality as Cathy and Gene worked diligently for their family and put their two sons through college. Their son Albert attended Berkeley and works for Amazon in San Francisco, while Jeffrey, a pharmacist now living in Austin, graduated from Texas Tech.
The couple’s origins are rooted in Asia; Cathy moved from Taiwan when she was 24, and her husband Gene is originally from Hong Kong. Gene was a student in Detroit, Michigan working in a Chinese restaurant when he learned the ins and outs of cooking.
This experience would result in Gene later being the sole cook for China House, while Cathy runs the rest of the show. With a sharp-as-a-knife memory, Cathy will remember an order forever if a customer orders it twice. With no steam table to keep pre-made food warm, they pride themselves on cooking every dish fresh from the start. Every week day morning at 9:00 AM, it’s all hands on deck and time to start putting together the fresh food for the day. All the sauces and soups consumed throughout the day are made fresh by hand every morning, along with freshly chopped vegetables used in many of the dishes. The menu selected by the couple many years ago offers a different special every day Monday through Friday, and includes a unique menu of healthier options for those with dietary restrictions. The restaurant’s aesthetic is that of traditional Chinese colors and decorations, all selected and purchased in China. After inquiry, Cathy reveals the symbolism of the colorful framed photos of koi fish and Chinese cherry blossoms, representing success and wealth.
I sit down with a beaming Cathy while Gene cooks in the kitchen to talk about their history, family, and life.
When did you move here, and why did you choose Huntsville?
We moved here 34 years ago from Sugar Land to start the restaurant, because there were not many Chinese restaurants here. At the time, there were only two; now there are eight. When you’re in this business you know that. (laughing)
What was your family doing in Sugar Land?
First, my husband graduated from the University of Michigan. We’re from Detroit, and then we came here because we had family in Sugar Land. We also have family in San Francisco. One of my sons is an Amazon manager in San Francisco, and the other is a pharmacist in Austin.
After you and Gene decided to start your own restaurant, what inspired you to choose your menu?
When we came to the United States, my husband worked in Detroit. He was a student and worked part time at a Chinese restaurant where he learned to cook.
What is your favorite thing on the menu?
I like garlic shrimp.
After this question, a customer walks in and Cathy responds quickly.
“How may I help you?” she asks. She takes his to-go order and writes while simultaneously answering the phone. “China House, how may I help you?” She listens, her eyes lighting up while she absorbs every detail the first time, no repeating needed. She responds so promptly with “okay” that you wonder how there’s any way she got all of that information, but she did. She quickly goes back to the kitchen to tell her husband the order. The man who came in for the to go order waits no longer than 5 minutes before Cathy carries the bag out of the kitchen, he pays, and he is on his way. Cathy and Gene are undoubtedly one of the fastest tag teams in town. She sits back down to continue the interview.
How do you remember everyone’s order? You obviously pay attention.
That’s right. Doing this job, mostly you remember. When people come two times, I remember. When the customer’s real nice, I remember better! (laughs)
We open at 11:00, so when we get here at about 9:00, we cook the rice first. Then we cook the soup and sauce and everything. Every day, we prepare the sauce and soup fresh. We have egg drop, wonton, and hot and sour soup. We also do a special soup, Thai soup-chicken broth, coconut juice, and it’s spicy. We make homemade hot sauce, chop the vegetables, and prepare for the lunch crowd.
What are the most popularly ordered lunch and dinner entrées?
General Tso chicken, house lo mein, combination fried rice, and pad thai. People order lots of cheese puffs.
What is something that sets your restaurant apart?
We make everything here, and we make our own eggrolls. We offer tofu which is real healthy and good for people watching their weight. It’s on the healthier menu we have to choose from.
No dessert. Just fortune cookies.
What are some of your specials?
The lunch specials are $6 or $7 instead of $8 or $9.
The decorations are beautiful, where did you get them?
China. I brought them to the United States. The koi fish are a sign of money, wealth. And Cherry blossoms are pretty to look at.
Cathy and Gene’s plans are to continue running their restaurant and serving the Huntsville area until retirement. After their business legacy has ended, they will spend their time volunteering in the church. China House is open from 11:00 am- 8:00 pm Monday through Friday, closed on weekends. If visiting for dinner or enjoying a lunch specially cooked fresh by Gene —whether or not you remember Cathy, odds are she remembers you.
[Editor’s Note: I couldn’t help chuckling as I settled in to edit this story and read the note from our writer Andrea about how difficult it was to obtain this interview; Cathy was a difficult subject, with abrupt answers and the inability to sit still long—(have you ever tried to catch a whirlwind?)…which is exactly what my family has grown to love about her over the years! We even love sharing and comparing “Cathy stories” with our friends. Anyone who has experienced the “Cathy memory phenomenon” over the years has a story that’s their favorite. My wife had not eaten much Chinese food before we married. We went a few times before she was injured in a car wreck, and when we were able to return, it had literally been a couple of years. As soon as we sat down, Cathy looked at Karen and said, “Shrimp lo-mein, medium spicy, no veggies, right?” Karen was amazed, and stills tells that story!
We also owe Cathy and Gene our gratitude for helping expand our children’s horizons and getting them to try new foods. Cathy definitely made it fun, made them feel special, and always sent the kids home with a sack full of fortune cookies.
So, if this story seems choppy and rushed, just know that the service, hospitality, and food is not!]
2105 Sam Houston Ave, Huntsville